Final Staff

Editor-in-Chief:
Stacey Janssen

Managing Editor:
Dave Noonan

Editors

  • Mishell Baker
  • Bluejack
  • Amy Goldschlager
  • Emily Lupton
  • R. K. MacPherson
  • Scott James Magner
  • Robin Shantz

Copy Editors

  • Sarah L. Edwards
  • Yoon Ha Lee
  • Sherry D. Ramsey
  • Rena Saimoto
  • Paula Stiles

Editors-at-Large

  • Marti McKenna
  • Bridget McKenna

Publicity

  • Geb Brown

Publisher: Bluejack

August, 2005 : Review:

Short Fiction Reviews, August 2005

At a party the other day the old topic of sexism in science fiction came up. There have been studies done, statistical compilations, showing that it is more difficult for women to publish in science fiction than it is for men. The topic has been discussed ad nauseam in various cons over the past few years without reaching consensus on any single explanation or correction. One editor has acknowledged that before the statistical analysis, he thought he published more male authors than female authors because that was representative of the rates of submissions, but that he undertook his own analysis and found that correlating submissions to published stories he clearly favored male authors. Now this was no old-guard editor with overt sexist attitudes or beliefs, so we have to ask the tough questions: are the women simply not writing good enough stories? Are male editors still prejudiced, if only on a subconscious level? Is there some essential distinction between men’s stories and women’s stories such that male editors will naturally filter in favor of their own gender?

I would like to see more recent data on the various magazines, correlated against submission rates, the gender and age of the editor, and so forth.

However, the early study found an even greater disparity in the rate at which women were reviewed. This strikes more at home, and I began to wonder what my own stats look like. A quick glance over recent months suggests that I, too, tend to review males somewhat disproportionately more than females. Now, that might be tempered by the fact that my reviews are not always positive — that is to say, it’s possible that some authors, male or female, might be relieved at being overlooked here. But the simple fact is, I try to review the stories about which I think I have something worth saying. And at first blush (I’ll try to gather some stats next month), it looks like I may be “favoring” male authors, just as Locus has been accused of doing.

My first reaction to this is that like an editor, I make a lot of decisions from the gut. When deciding what to analyze, I first respond to what moves me. And perhaps it’s no surprise that the themes and motifs that move other men to write may be connecting most strongly with my own sensibilities. I certainly don’t intend any sexism, and when I encounter it in the literature I cringe.

Back to the party. One suggestion made by a prominent female author was to balance male editors with female counterparts, either as full co-editor, or in some other position with sufficient influence over the content of the magazine to balance the gender sensibilities of the male editor. (And down that road, would Ellen Datlow, Shawna McCarthy, and Sheila Williams be taking on similar male ombudsmen?)

And what about reviews? Well, if any women out there think I’m doing a rotten job covering female authors, I’m open to suggestions.

Next Month: In addition to the usual suspects, I’ve already received (too late for inclusion in this issue) Talebones (#30), Black Gate (#8), Interzone (August), and Aeon (#4) ... so look for those sometime around NASFiC.

The 3rd Alternative (#42)

Welcome to the last issue of The 3rd Alternative. In a way, we knew this was happening: when TTA press brought Interzone into the family, there was an inevitable impact on The 3rd Alternative: it’s tough to play the role of rebellious outsider when you own the insider, and any sensible publisher will create products that complement each other rather than compete with each other. In any case, The 3rd Alternative has always felt like it wanted to go for the dark edges of fantasy and science fiction, if not outright horror, and now it has a good reason to do so.

What we didn’t expect was that it would change its name. So, starting with the next issue, look for Black Static in the mail.

If the content in this new issue is characteristic of what is to come, I have to question whether I am the right reader. I utterly failed to understand more than half the stories in this issue, and cannot figure out whether I am simply not reading them the way they were meant to be read (ie., “understanding” isn’t the point), or whether they are simply too sophisticated for my rough palate:

Elizabeth Bear’s vampire story is constructed as a puzzle for fans of blues music: the main character (a vampire) is the undead continuation of some well-known musician. Apparently for readers who decipher the clues this has some entertainment value. I can vouch that for those of us not well acquainted with the field, it’s more frustrating than anything. Douglas Lain’s mermaid story is sufficiently surreal that any interpretation of the text, and in particular the ending, runs into the impenetrable wall of: “Is it magic or is it madness?” Darren Speegle’s Lago Di Iniquita also has something of the descent-into-madness quality about it, and also comes with a challenging ending that left me uncomfortably uncertain about the whole story even after two close readings. As for Matthew Francis’ The Vegetable Lamb, I tried very, very hard to figure this one out....

The Vegetable Lamb by Matthew Francis

Matthew Francis brings a leisurely, languid style to this tale of a Consul’s wife. Resonant with Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the strange, remote land of Tartary harbors rumors of strange flora: a plant that fruits delicious, tender lambs. This is the vegetable lamb of medieval folk tale, currently thought to be a misinterpretation of cotton by Europeans who had never seen the actual plant. The Consul’s wife, however, is hoping there is something more to the story. Although of good breeding, she has lived her life as something of a rogue, and adventurer after exotic recipes. Indeed, she did not come to this far off land with a Consular husband:

She is a diplomatic wife more or less by accident. When she met Geoffrey, she was scrounging off friends in the British colony, cooking for their dinner-parties and working on her book. Geoffrey helped with the matter of her passport, and it seemed a good idea to settle down for a bit.

The book mentioned is her guide to exotic foods, and it is the vegetable lamb that brought her to Tartary.

Francis skillfully interweaves the background of our protagonist and her quest for the vegetable lamb with the preparations for a party she has organized, and to which she has arranged that her lover be invited. However, we learn that all is not well in Tartary. Something is building, and the protagonist’s hunch that it is a storm is not well founded.

Francis carefully slips into the text a great number of clues as to what is actually going on, and what the ending will be. However, on my first reading I missed most of them. On my second reading I didn’t piece it together. After nearly two weeks of pondering The Vegetable Lamb I thought I had it figured out and dove in for a third reading, only to find that half the support for my theory was not actually present in the text.

There are peculiar touches that seem strongly like clues: Rodericj, the protagonist’s lover, gives her the name of the man who is to bring her the vegetable lamb. The name: Barometz. A Google search reveals that this is in fact that Tartar name for “lamb” — and one of the historical names for the plant referred to as the vegetable lamb. Another clue: there is a point at which the protagonist is on the phone with her lover, despite the fact that the phone does not work properly for any other calls. Her lover is whispering with someone. His words are cryptic, and suggest that he is complicit in the troubles that have descended upon Tartary. Perhaps he has been using her as an unwitting spy. But there are no other suggestions in the text that this is so, that he has gained anything from her, that she has given anything. The final passages of the text are ominous, but ambiguous. The tension is released in an afterword, which could be from the book that the protagonist went on to write after sampling the vegetable lamb. But there is no strong evidence of that suggestion, although there is another reference to Barometz in it. A final hint found in that afterword is the identification of the vegetable lamb with the plant lycopodium, which is a homeopathic remedy. According to one site:

Lycopodium types tend to be bossy and irritable. They are afraid of making mistakes and forgetting things and with developing loss of confidence, cannot bring themselves to do anything. They can become averse to meeting people, new projects and being alone. Yet at the same time they desire company.

Now, this quite accurately characterizes the psychology of the protagonist. But... again... what is the story here? Do these pieces add up to anything?

Again, I return to the question: am I simply trying too hard? Is “understanding” not the point of a story like this? The writing is lovely, and evocative; the premise, although not original, makes for some fun reading; and the story is scrupulously paced, to achieve a dynamic of gradually increasing tension, followed by a drifting, dreamy denouement. Although I note that a denouement is supposed to “provide an outcome to the primary plot situation as well as an explanation of secondary plot complications.” And, for the life of me, I could find no such outcome.

Dying in the Arms of Jean Harlow by Paul Meloy

The story everyone is talking about. (Perhaps because they didn’t understand any of the others?)

This is a fairly straightforward tale about redemption, as some rather unpleasant men find a new purpose in life. But, as you can imagine, that’s not all there is to it. Meloy, who inspired Andy Cox in the renaming of the magazine with his story Black Static back in issue #40, is not a straightforward writer. Meloy plays with the reader a little: the ending suggests a narrative framework that the reader was not privy to throughout. But what really shines here are the linguistic pyrotechnics.

Passage after passage deliver exquisite gems of description, despite the fact that Meloy is almost invariably describing degradation, squalor, desperate poverty, and depraved people. You wouldn’t want to find yourself in this Paul Meloy story.

Douglas Hoffman has written a fine review of this issue over at TangentOnline, in which he leads off with a lengthy look at Dying in the Arms of Jean Harlow. He cites a few of the sharper passages in the story, but Meloy’s writing never slows down. Every paragraph offers some crafty twist, some lurid description, some unsettling new detail. However, Hoffman also calls this a “wonderful universe.”

Despite the lush, living prose, I found myself comparing this to a film, The Bad Lieutenant. It is ultimately a hopeful thing, to imagine redemption arising from the utmost depths to which a human can fall. But, while Meloy is adept in the depiction of the gruesome, the grisly, and the abhorrent, I did not find his heroes particularly compelling. Perhaps Meloy sensed this problem himself, for at the crucial turning point in his character, the narrator confesses: “Somehow, I bought it. Don’t ask me to describe the moment I went over, I just did.”

There’s more; Meloy does what any skillful writer does, he distracts the reader away from the narrative problem with competent slight of hand. In Meloy’s case, his character hides his unlikely decision away behind the clever facades of the jaded: “When you’ve grown up the way I have, you can smell bullshit from space, and Index just didn’t give off that aroma. So I agreed. On a trial basis. He’d make me a success and in return, well, I’d go rescue his little reborn Firmament Surgeons with a gun in my hand and a bitter repudiation of life’s antic bliss on my lips."

Index, by the way, is a character in the piece, the supernatural entity offering this choice.

Without compelling justification for the choice, I found that much of the energy went out of the story from this point forward.

Of course, it’s also the case that, having seen enough of the poverty, misery, and baseness of this world, writing that revels in its awfulness, that takes particular pleasure in the cutting conveyance of the hideous, has less appeal than it used to. Paul Meloy has the talent of a William S. Burroughs or a Henry Miller or a J. G. Ballard, but — and here is where readers will be advised to form their own opinion — I don’t have much use for another Burroughs, Miller, or Ballard.

The 3rd Alternative, ISSUE: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

Dying in the Arms of Jean Harlow

Paul Meloy

15,500 wds est

[Review] Superb writing, both visual and visceral, characterizes this gruesome tale of rescue and redemption in a grim, loveless world.

The Word Mermaid

Douglas Lain

9,000 wds est

Surrealism and madness. I confess I did not get a sufficient grasp on Lain’s story to appreciate it. Unless it was just meant to be stylish surrealism, and madness.

The Vegetable Lamb

Matthew Francis

5,000 wds est

[Review] The Consul’s wife has invited her lover to dinner, and has high hopes of getting her hands on a mythical meal.

House of the Rising Sun

Elizabeth Bear

3,000 wds est

A vampire standard, with a bit of a gimmick at its heart: what bluesman is Bear paying tribute to with her vampire protagonist, “Tribute”?

Lago Di Iniquita

Darren Speegle

4,500 wds est

An older man carrying guilt over the death of his wife and children takes his new girlfriend back to the scene of the tragedy, and is revisited by the Saint he once demanded help from.

Reality, Interrupted

Jason Erik Lundberg

4,500 wds est

The dead wreak vengeance upon a trickster elemental who destroyed them.

Analog

Analog: Oct.

Analog (October, 2005)

Oh, boy, how time flies. I’m writing this at the beginning of July and October is already upon us!

As you can see from the cover image, I made the disastrous mistake of actually subscribing to Analog and Asimov’s. Instead of fresh, clean copies of each issue obtained in a timely manner off my preferred bookseller’s shelf, I receive an issue with an unsightly and unremovable sticker across the front of the magazine, which itself has been passed through the Post Office Shredding and Chopping machine. Most publications ship their product in a paper or plastic sleeve, both to provide a surface for mailing information and to protect the magazine itself. This is more important for something you might actually want to save than for your usual read-n-recycle publication. So, lesson learned. Once my subscription lapses, I’ll go back to buying copies off the newsstand. I realize that the various magazines prefer subscriptions to newsstand sales, but until a subscription is actually a comparable product, I can’t advise anyone to do so.

(By the way, the acronym YAAFCS stands for “Yet Another Analog First Contact Story.”)

Smiling Faces in Hog Heaven by Stephen L. Burns

Jamal Warren is the Breakfast and Lunch Manager of a Farmer Fatback’s Hog Heaven fast food outlet. Normally he arrives in the early hours to find that the automated systems have already begun preparations for the day’s production of grossly oversized pork-based meals. However, one day he arrives to find his employees — and himself — locked out. It’s not a sudden corporate takeover. It’s not a mechanical malfunction. The network of A.I.s that operate each store have encountered a conflict in their programming. In fact, they are on strike.

There are a lot of nice touches in this story, but my personal favorite is his nod to Firesign Theater’s I Think We’re All Bozos on this Bus album in naming the A.I. “Clem.” For truly ground-breaking science fiction, in both form and content, that recording from the early ’70s is some hilarious stuff.

The story: Warren has to convince the A.I. to get prepping the day’s food, or else he’s bound to be fired. In a world where most of his friends have either ended up in a military quagmire abroad or doing time for selling drugs at home, Warren’s future outside the Farmer Fatback’s corporate ladder doesn’t look good.

Burns had a lot of fun with his peek inside a fast food chain. It’s exaggerated and silly — yet frighteningly plausible. If you’ve ever worked in fast food, and few people escape adolescence without doing at least a little time in that world, you’ll see far too much to recognize.

Since Warren is dealing with A.I., his literalist approach is ingenious, (and another nod to Firesign Theater) with arguments such as this one, in which he tries to get operations going while working out the problems the A.I. is having with serving disgustingly bad-for-you food: “What if we make them, but don’t serve them? Is there any harm in that?”

Each paragraph is a delight to read, and the conclusion pleasantly satisfying. This is a top-notch offering from Burns.

Analog October: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

Language Lessons

Amy Bechtel

nvlt

Further adventures of Dr. Michael, Veterinarian to the terminally stupid — and sea monsters. Utterly charming stuff, of special appeal to any fan of James Herriot.

The Wrong Side of the Planet

Joe Schembrie

nvlt

In its own weird way, it’s rather refreshing to encounter this family-values alternative to the Robinson vision of Mars colonization. The moralizing ending exhausted that refreshment.

Zero Tolerance

Richard A. Lovett

nvlt

The confluence of a blue moon on Halloween with powerful solar storms interacting with brain-image magnetic strips turn humans into literalists and petty bureaucrats, taking “Zero Tolerance” to intolerable extremes.

Entropy’s Girlfriend

Robert J. Howe

nvlt

You’ve heard of accident prone, but how about local entropic disturbances? A charming sci-fi romance.

The Doctrine of Noncontact

Catherine Shaffer

short

Although marred by the curious lack of technologies such as night-vision goggles and unmanned vehicles, this becomes an interesting meditation on the human longing for alien contact — particularly since it’s YAAFCS.

Infinity’s Friend

Dave Creek

short

YAAFCS: and a contrast to Shaffer’s story by focussing on the cultural impact of humans on alienkind, rather than the biochemical impact. Also a touching rescue story with a nice emotional arc.

Smiling Faces in Hog Heaven

Stephen L. Burns

short

[Review] Laugh-out-loud take on artificial intelligence and the future of the fast food industry.

The Time Pit

Stephen Baxter

short

Back to the Old Earth world, where, like in a black hole, the passage of time is directly related to elevation. A nice science-fictional analogue for religious war.

Asimov’s

Asimov’s: Sept. 05

Asimov’s (September, 2005)

Frederick Pohl? Brian W. Aldiss? In Asimov’s? What year is this?

Reading new works by old masters is a fascinating thing; reviewing them, however, is daunting. The lowly reviewer in his humble reviewing cave is no match for these giants. I will only say that some I don’t think Frederick Pohl’s attitudes towards women have changed much since the fifties, and although it is Pohl who has done all the joint projects with Jack Williamson, Aldiss’ narrative style actually reminds me more strongly of it.

For more about that big sticker across the cover image, read the intro to this month’s Analog.

Finished by Robert Reed

You can rely on Robert Reed to put a strange, dark spin on a story, and Finished is no exception. We’ve seen variations on immortality from virtual personalities uploaded into some vast dataspace to biological miracle cures for all bodily ills. Although I can’t recall anything quite like Reed’s take here, it fits very much into this spectrum.

A “Finished” person has exchanged his flesh-and-blood body for a simulacrum which perfectly preserves the person’s mind, memories, and personality at the time of transfer. Not just that, but mood as well: the “Finished” person is a snapshot of the person on the last day of his or her conventional life. A person saved from dying of cancer by last-minute transfer to an immortal replica of himself is going to live forever as a dying man. So, orchestrating the moment of transfer is important: clear, sunny days under a high pressure system are particularly popular. Going in alone, so you don’t end up carrying a torch for some lover through the rest of eternity is also important.

This, then, is Reed’s carefully thought-out and quite convincing premise. In the early paragraphs it feels strikingly like Brian Plante’s In the Loop in the July/August Analog, but soon Reed’s story goes somewhere different. Somewhere, not unsurprisingly, darker.

Now the winning idea here is the recording of the dynamic state of human consciousness into a permanent medium. Reed explores the dimensions of this idea quite intelligently. However, a major plot point stumbles against the grain of this idea. While it turns out to be not-so-wonderful for the immortals to essentially live the same day all over again, the essence of the static personality emphasizes how wonderful the dynamic aspect of the human experience is. It emphasizes not only the unique nature of each individual human, but also the uniqueness of each moment of life.

Oddly, a major element of the plot turns out to be the physical beauty of one of the characters who is considering taking the transfer to the “Finished” state. There’s no sense that the bodies of the transferred can’t be enhanced, or upgraded — indeed, the notion of upgrading body materials is discussed. So why should these characters care about physical beauty prior to transfer? I would have thought the central plot point would have been the uniqueness of the individual spirit, something special in the personality of the potential client, rather than mere comeliness.

Still, that quibble aside, this is a masterful handling of the material, a perfectly paced story that starts strange, and each carefully delivered revelation only layers more complexity onto the mood that Reed achieves.

Second Person, Present Tense by Daryl Gregory

The title of this scared me. Read enough of ’em, and the second person present tense story as a sort of literary exercise becomes rather tiresome. But the introductory quotations set the tone, and the first line of the story made it clear that the story itself was in the form of a first person narrative.

Far from being a literary exercise, this is very sharp science fiction about a troubled family and a damaged girl, a story in which the science — neuroscience — is essential, and the mystery of human consciousness is the primary subject matter.

Reviewers all have favorite kinds of fiction, I am sure, and Gregory delivers a story that hits all my buttons: the science is good, up-to-date, intriguing, and central to the story. The story, however, is about real, believable people. It has a very powerful emotional arc that is moving without being manipulative. At the beginning, we have a protagonist and several antagonists, but casting these into hero and villains roles would be too simple. And it gets more complicated as the story unfolds. The story itself has philosophical and spiritual dimensions, as anything that examines the nature of human consciousness must. Best of all, when Gregory takes a look into small-town conservative Christianity, he’s not looking for an excuse to mock or reasons to hate — he’s looking at real people and real problems. Even his balance between “good” and “bad” psychologists is nuanced by the complexities of the characters. None of these characters are stand-ins for political, ideological, philosophical, or religious “positions.” They are just strong, believable people.

Our first-person narrator, our protagonist, our “I” — although quotes from Emo Phillips and Shun Ryu Suzuki warn us not to put too much trust in the “I” — is Terri, a girl who overdosed on a new drug called Z. Z has the effect of separating consciousness from the actual functioning of the brain. This relies on the current neurological understanding of consciousness as a sort of artifact of human brain function, the consequence of the brain’s decisions rather than the cause. Stop feeding those causes to the consciousness, and the apparent causality of the universe starts to scramble. Stop it long enough, and the consciousness dies. Terri is the “replacement” consciousness in a teen girl’s body. She doesn’t think she likes the original Theresa, she’s sure she doesn’t like her parents, and above all, she doesn’t trust the counselor they have hired to “bring back” the original Theresa.

But Terri herself is not entirely likeable. As with many teens, she inspires a certain urge to shake some sense into her.

The only downside to this story is that among the spot-on research, delicate handling of the narrative, and convincing characters, Terri herself is just a bit too sophisticated to believe. Although emotionally, she comes across plausibly as a mixed-up teen whose rebellion against the pre-fab worldview of her town and her parents got out of hand, she manages to navigate the minefield with a degree of intellectual self-awareness and personal self-confidence that is a little hard to buy.

Still, without that exceptional aspect to Terri’s situation, it’s hard to imagine this coming-of-age story reaching a satisfactory conclusion.

I should add that the story eventually justifies the somewhat peculiar title. In a story that questions the “I,” “You” can be an ambiguous and powerful word.

Asimov’s (Sept, 05): Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

Generations

Frederick Pohl

nvlt

A strange mix of sensibilities from early twentieth-century sexism and classism to cyberpunk.

Pipeline

Brian W. Aldiss

nvlt

An unlikable corporate flack hands a Turkmenistan dissident over to the brutal dictator in order to complete an oil pipeline on time. Over the rest of the story, he becomes less likeable still. Choppy writing.

Second Person, Present Tense

Daryl Gregory

nvlt

[Review] Powerful coming-of-age/finding-yourself story built on the very latest brain/mind/body research.

Harvest Moon

William Barton

nvlt

Permanent moonbases in the ’60s? Barton’s alternate history is interesting on several levels, and very well researched. The alternate history divergence seems to be: what if everything NASA dreamed of doing, it did on time and under budget.

Finished

Robert Reed

short

[Review] Immortality comes with a steep price-tag. In more ways than just financial.

The Company Man

John Phillip Olsen

short

An unlikable corporate flack hands the entire body of Edvard Munch’s work over to aliens... or that’s the plan. But he becomes a little more likeable as he confronts himself.

A Rocket for the Republic

Lou Antonelli

short

Texan tall tale, or sci-fi fabulism? A fun first-person narrative about the first space expedition — way back in the thirties. The eighteen thirties, that is.

F&SF

F&SF: September

F&SF (September, 2005)

This peculiar and not entirely attractive cover is actually a genuine illustration for David Gerrold’s two parter, A Quantum Bit..., which does the rather astonishing thing of taking two different conversations that, independently, are little more than semi-philosophical blather but combined form a single story. Very cute piece of work.

Among the regular features, one column that really deserves special attention is Paul Di Filippo’s Plumage from Pegasus. Really, these are short stories, and perhaps should be considered as such by this column. But they are very particular short stories: wacky satires that are specifically about the trials and travails of being a writer. Di Filippo neatly skewers all aspects of the publishing world into delicious little shish kabobs, nicely basted with spicy sauce, and roasted for your dining pleasure. This month’s “Soul Mining” is particularly yummy.

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

I read a lot of short stories. Not as many as Rich Horton, but it’s up there. One author I’ve never read, though, is Kelly Link. Our paths just never crossed. But her name has been mentioned in just about every conversation about short fiction that I have been party to in the past three years. You have to read Kelly Link! Her name is used as the gold standard for “bold new writer” — other authors might as well be issued a number: Charles Coleman Finlay is an 0.8 on the Kelly Link scale. Jim Kelly is 0.75. Most Analog authors are probably somewhere around 0.1. Kelly Link is the China Miéville wunderkind of short fiction. And I have never read a single damn story.

Until now.

Magic for Beginners is the title story of Link’s new collection, coming out this summer. The release of the story in F&SF thusly feels more like orchestrated marketing than simple publishing, like when McDonald’s releases Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith drinking mugs.

Anyway, I came to the story with a whole bundle of contradictory expectations. (“This is going to be a great story.” “Ah, she can’t be that wonderful; it’s probably just a lot of hype.” “At last! My first Kelly Link!” “I bet it will be another finely literary bit of borderline spec fiction that’s linguistically elegant but inherently kind of dull.”)

And the conclusion is... Hey! This is fun! What a wild ride!

Magic for Beginners is a substantial novella, written about the height of adolescence for readers of all ages. It utilizes a tricksy recursive framework in which the characters are part of a television show, and the bond between this band of teen friends is the fact that they are all fans of this same television show. But Link uses this framework with the lightest of touches, just an authorial nudge here or there to keep the context sufficiently unnerving. And she layers it on, too: the main character — Jeremy Mars — has a father who is a writer. And who has written Jeremy Mars as a real character into one of his books. Is Mars a character in a television show? Or in a book?

Even as I type these words, I can feel how I would react if I had read them: all that elaborate play sounds dull, dull, dull. But the opposite is true. Link makes this story work because her cozy band of teens are all complicated in different ways. The characters are utterly recognizable. Either Link happens to know the people I went to High School with, or else she has tapped the universal vein of adolescence more purely than anything I have read. Ever.

The recursive framework is highbrow entertainment, but the guts of the story consist of brilliant character studies, tense social situations as hints of awkward attraction flicker tentatively around the five kids, and in no easy dimensions.

And the bond that brings these five together, the show they share, The Library is a weird and wonderful concoction, a perfect juxtaposition of sophisticated experimental television and goofy surrealistic humor that reflects the wild creativity of adolescence perfectly.

In short, despite all the baggage I brought to the story, Link lifted me right past it all. This is the kind of fiction that transports the reader out of the printed word entirely and directly into vivid imagination.

I will say, however, that the ending was a bit of a let down. In part because I didn’t want it to end, and in part because very little of the tension the story generates actually resolves. I want this to be the first section of a novel. I want this band of friends to see their passion through. I want them to survive the hazards of adolescence. I want things to turn out better for them than things turned out for myself.

Link leaves me hoping.

F&SF Sept. 05: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

Magic for Beginners

Kelly Link

nvla

[Review] A surreal, recursive ride through a strange and magical television adolescence.

A Quantum Bit Exists in Two States Simultaneously: On\Off

David Gerrold

short

Two short stories frame the issue front and back; independently amusing, combined form a somewhat different story, also amusing.

Age of Miracles

Richard Mueller

short

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Although, to tell the truth, the computer salesman bringing a load of parts to Michelangelo’s Computos Fenestrum was nervous about the possibility.

I Didn’t Know What Time it Was

Carter Scholz

short

The author tells you right up front that his personal time machine isn’t what you think. Still, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in this time travel tale focussed on the golden age of jazz. But really, the time travel machine isn’t what you think.

What I Owe to Rick

Arthur Porges

flash

A basilisk in suburbia.

The Housewarming

Albert E. Cowdrey

short

Cowdrey presents a very finely crafted, cutting ghost story. Cowdrey’s New Orleans continues to amaze.

The Denial

Bruce Sterling

short

This is Sterling working a different vein: no sparkling vision of the future here. This is a magical fairy tale, something suitable for the Brothers Grimm.

Realms of Fantasy

Realms of Fantasy: Aug. 2005

Realms of Fantasy (August, 2005)

A classic RoF cover, you must agree. No centerfold, sadly. Hey, that’s a good idea! I think we should all petition RoF to have a gaudy fantasy themed centerfold.

With regard to fiction this month, in addition to the story reviewed below, I would like to particularly recommend Joe Murphy’s The Secret of Broken Tickers, which is a follow up to his previous The Secret of Making Brains. Murphy’s oddball clockwork fantasy is nothing if not original, and this episode continues to delight and to surprise. Also, Amy Beth Forbes offers a real gem of a piece in A Bedtime Tale for the Disenchanted. It’s unfortunate that I don’t always find inspiration to more intricately analyze some of the better stories in each issue, and these are two that deserve more recognition than I am giving them.

A Statement in the Case by Theodora Goss

Constructed as a monologue, this story is intended to be read as a man’s statement to the police concerning a strange incident he witnessed.

Rather than simply recounting his sensory input on the night in question, however, he gives the whole story. He knows the suspect, after all, and believes he knows something of the circumstances surrounding the fire that killed the suspect’s wife.

Goss accomplishes some magnificent characterization within the confines of this structure: both the narrator and his friend István Horvath fairly sparkle with clarity. It’s a magnificent friendship between a retiree who’s a bit distrustful of anything new, unusual, or foreign and yet becomes close to an unusual foreigner who runs a pharmacy around the corner.

But when István comes back from Hungary with a wife — a domineering woman intent upon making changes and improvements to the little pharmacy — things begin to change, eventually leading to a climactic moment.

Now, for the most part this does not read as fantasy at all, and in a sense, the story could have been written without that element entirely. Nonetheless, this story benefits not only from the magical component that eventually does manifest, but it also benefits from being in a venue such as Realms of Fantasy (and not just because there’s a very nice illustration by Andrea Wicklund). Goss plays with the genre expectations of readers in some clever ways, resulting in a fine, satisfying conclusion that should please all readers.

Realms of Fantasy August: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

The Penultimate Riddle

Richard Parks

3,250 wds est

Why do creatures as sociable as sphinxes ask riddles and devour those who cannot answer? Cute premise, talky execution in contemporary conversational style.

A Statement in the Case

Theodora Goss

4,750 wds est

[Review] First person narrative to a police sergeant explaining a fire he witnessed. Delicate tale of escaping the Old World with a few of its... stranger... treasures.

The Queen’s Wood

Josh Rountree

6,250 wds est

Sequel to “The King’s Snow” — another quest for Turion, with perhaps a bit more at stake.

A Bedtime Tale for the Disenchanted

Amy Beth Forbes

2,250 wds est

A crazy sort of a tale about trying to correct faults in the wayward beloved.

The Secret of Broken Tickers

Joe Murphy

6,500 wds est

Murphy returns with more of his brilliant and charming clockwork kabbalah. This time with real humans!

Countless Screaming Argonauts

Chris Lawson

12,000 wds est

High adventure at the end of the Greek mythic age.

When the Dragon Falls

Patrick Samphire

3,000 wds est

Domestic drama: children of troubled marriages deal with the border between childhood and the adult world.

SciFiction

SciFiction June-July

SciFiction (June-July)

We’re covering two months this issue. Summer months, but SciFiction is not exactly giving us page turners (screen scrollers?) this season. Much of the fiction from June and July is careful, thoughtful stuff with resonant imagery and emotionally powerful themes. Needless to say, all of it is very good writing. As a case in point: the most recent story of the lot, The Christmas Count is not just the story of a birder in a world that is being repopulated with extinct species.... it’s a very nicely crafted tale of an edgy friendship between two men who share a love of birding, but not much else. The characters are complexly nuanced, the relationship a churning barrel of difficult power dynamics. The birding details are utterly convincing — just about as much verisimilitude as you can take. But despite the hard-sf element, the compelling dynamics and tensions of a problematic friendship, and the gradual build-up of ominous foreboding, this story takes work to read. Perhaps it’s all intended to balance out the summer blockbuster season. Leave your brain at home when you go to the movies. Make it work overtime when you read your SciFiction.

Diamond Girls by Louise Marley

By far the most “summery” of fiction for this span is Louise Marley’s baseball story about the first two women in the MLB. The first is something of a genetic engineering accident, a superhuman created experimentally by her own mother, with techniques that completely failed to pan out. The second has been brought up from the minors as something of a marketing stunt: get media attention when the first women face each other.

Marley is really grafting two stories together here: one is the first genetically engineered sports star, the other is the first woman in major league baseball. To Marley’s credit, combining these two into a single piece almost worked for me. From the larger context, both culturally and philosophically, I think it’s the former story that has the broadest repercussions, but Marley tried to keep the two balanced.

The tale itself follows the traditional form of the baseball story: pitcher and batter face off over the course of nine innings. Each has her career on the line, in different ways. Marley does a brilliant job of demonstrating the obstacles each player is confronting, as well as the passion each brings to the game. More praise to Marley for restraining the impulse to make this a championship game! There was enough at stake without riding the season on the last pitch, and the story, especially the ending, is better for Marley’s choice.

So, although I enjoyed the premises, and also the execution of the story, I kept tripping over my own disbelief: why would a major sports organization ever allow a massively genetically modified human to play against mere mortals? What does it even matter what gender she is, when physiologically, she’s barely human? Consider:

It didn’t matter that she possessed a killer curve, a hundred-plus fastball, a splitter that made grown-up men wave their bats like beginning T-ballers. What mattered, not to everyone, but to enough of them, was what she was and how she got that way.

Well... you know... it should matter. This is the same question of performance enhancing drugs, except amplified to the Nth degree. I’m not saying there’s an answer to this question: the notion of “natural” athletes is increasingly arbitrary even today, with the combination of highly professional training from birth, non-pharmaceutical techniques to maximize performance and muscle-mass, and the increasingly grey area of how to define “performance enhancing drugs.” It may well be that the eventual answer would be to throw open the rules — anything goes! If our sports stars want to destroy themselves for a brief flash of notoriety, a single season or two of super-human numbers, then so be it. In any case, this is a thorny topic, and it is this aspect of the story that, ultimately, Marley failed to deliver on.

Fortunately, the first two women in baseball story works really well. Marley obviously knows her baseball, and the way she captures both the dynamics of the baseball story and the emotional desire to succeed on the part of both her characters really does make for a good summer screen-scroller.

SciFiction June-July: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

The Christmas Count

David B. Coe

8,500 wds est

[Online] Hitchcock’s The Birds on Quaaludes: genetically resurrected extinct species are being reintroduced, and only one birder has a bad feeling about this.

Gauging Moonlight

E. Catherine Tobler

2,900 wds est

[Online] There’s a strong sense of mood and melancholy in this time-travel, star-faring prose poem.

Calypso in Berlin

Elizabeth Hand

7,000 wds est

[Online] Calypso is alive and well: the nymph is now an artist, working in Berlin. She still likes to keep her men to herself, though, and uses some elaborate means to do so.

Heavy Lifting

Suzy McKee Charnas

12,000 wds est

[Online] A ghost story with a wise-cracking unbeliever pushed into the unwelcome role of hero. Ends up feeling like background material for a larger, longer work.

The Starry Night

Barry N. Malzberg and Jack Dann

4,000 wds est

[Online] A fractured, fragmentary, mad meditation on Van Gogh’s painting, on the blighted face of God beyond the billowing stars, faith and science baffled together by mysteries greater than either.

There’s a Hole in the City

Richard Bowes

6,500 wds est

[Online] 9/11 memoir/ghost story. Authentic and convincing.

Diamond Girls

Louise Marley

8,000 wds est

[Online] [Review] The first female baseball player is also the first genetically modified human.

The Being of it All

Carol Emshwiller

3,000 wds est

[Online] A woman and her dog booboo make idle stabs at responding to the call to “Be. Do. Proclaim. Become More than your Father’s Son.” Stylistic blather... or the problem of female spirituality within a patriarchal religion?

Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons June-July

Strange Horizons (June-July)

Also two months worth of stories at Strange Horizons to catch up on in this article. Without further ado, two of the more interesting ones...

Neils Bohr and the Sleeping Dane by Jonathan Sullivan

This is an account of Neils Bohr’s escape from Nazi territory in 1943. In this fantasy, Bohr’s son Aage is replaced by a different protege, the narrator of the tale, one David Goldblum.

The story may well be inspired by Bohr’s famous claim: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth."

The protagonist is a young man whose father is a powerful Rabbi, a man with extraordinary powers rooted deep in a knowledge of the kabbalah. If for no other reason, the story is fascinating for its equation of the mind of the Nazi follower with that of a golem. However, Bohr’s eventual balance of profound truths is the heart of the matter: for although David’s father wants him to follow in the family tradition, he does not believe himself called to it. Rather, his passion is for numbers of another sort: quantum numbers. But he balances this passion, intertwining the kabbalah of his father with a sort of kabbalah of quantum physics.

The story has a strong sense of motion, but its strength is more in small scenes than the large ones. There is a conversation between the Rabbi and Bohr in which the Rabbi first attacks the complacency of the Danes, and then turns it into a moment of hope. This is a far more powerful moment than the magical conflict at the end, which has a cinematic “set piece” quality that diminishes its impact.

Historically, this is loosely based in real history: Bohr did flee the Nazis at the last minute. However, Bohr’s character was more that of an active partisan than helpless professor. Bohr had been active in the Danish resistance for years, and it’s hard to imagine his escape being such a slipshod operation.

A Field Guide to Ugly Places by Patrick Samphire

Samphire tells this story from the noblest of motivations, but I’m not sure it succeeds.

Jamie’s wife Marlene has left him. He’s also unemployed. It’s the former that distresses him. He loved her, he really did. Of course, apparently he demonstrated this love by sleeping around and spending most of his time at bars. In fact, Jamie’s not a very likeable guy. Now he’s moping around the ruins of the factory where he used to work. He’s not demonstrating any guilt about his part in the ex-marriage. He’s not even showing any recognition that he had a role in it. He’s just sorry for himself that Marlene left him.

Samphire makes nice use of setting to reflect the character: Jamie is as broken down as the factory he haunts. The toxic ponds and poisonous remains of industry represent Jamie’s own blood and bone. He is an ugly man in an ugly place.

And then miracles begin to occur around him. A woman takes notice of him, shares a meal with him. She has a job to do, she tells him. She is here “to clean this place up.” Eagles drop seeds; kingfishers spit fish; new life takes root; toxins are miraculously replaced by fresh, nourishing soil.

It starts off subtle enough, but after a while it’s a little like being beaten about the head and shoulders with the symbolism stick. But that’s not really the problem.

Let’s go back to Jamie. The nameless woman suggests to Jamie that there is a chance of redemption. While I laud Samphire’s goal of demonstrating the possibility of purifying even the most toxic land, of cleansing even the most poisonous soul, the narrative does not reveal the means by which this magic comes to pass. Jamie never takes responsibility for his own choices. He never accepts his role in his own deterioration. He never even acknowledges the toxins he harbors. Jamie offers no sacrifice, and he experiences no epiphany.

The conservative Christian view of salvation talks a lot about grace: the infinite depth of God’s love, and the simple offer of new life to the broken. Salvation, in this theology, is offered by God free of charge. Salvation is not earned by human effort, for salvation is beyond our grasp. You don’t need to work for it, fight for it, beg for it, or even sacrifice for it. You only need to accept it.

Now, that could be where Samphire is going with this piece. Certainly, Jaime’s salvation seems to come from nowhere, and it seems to have no strings attached. Regardless of your theology, however, this makes for at best a somewhat weak story. Not quite deus ex machina, but in the same class. However, even in dispensational theologies, the acceptance of salvation is still a profound turning point in the individual experience. It is still a choice.

So, a noble purpose, but undermined by an overly passive, unlikable protagonist who fails to confront himself. And, I have to say, undermined also by the fact that the recurring focus is on the failed marriage, when that seems like the most superficial symptom of a deeper disease.

Strange Horizons June-July: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

Tiger

Jenn Reese

500 wds est

[Online] Be careful what you wish for, especially when you beg your wish of a tiger!

Neils Bohr and the Sleeping Dane

Jonathan Sullivan

7,500 wds est

[Online] [Review] Neils Bohr and a young protege strive to escape the Nazi regime.

Torn

Daniel Keyson

3,000 wds est

[Online] A man revisits with his dead wife through the mediation of a shaman. The man has sex with his dead wife. It’s not good for him.

The Historian

Joey Comeau

3,000 wds est

[Online] Superhero stories makes the jump to tepid academic literature in this tale of SuperAuthor, who uses her telepathic ability to land a paying contract with a New York Publisher.

Pursued by a Bear

Hannah Wolf Bowen

3,000 wds est

[Online] Sometimes the Bear catches you. In this case, the last wild bear. A marginally speculative story about diminishing wilderness, and wildness.

Ox

Jenn Reese

500 wds est

[Online] Sometimes the Wolves eat your livestock, even if wolves are, you know, pretty cool.

Happily Ever Awhile

Ruth Nestvold

2,250 wds est

[Online] There’s mainstream; there’s genre; then there’s anti-genre: This is the rest of the Cinderella story: a little adultery, lowered expectations, and a lot of just-getting-by while the husband’s away. Nestvold really takes the magic out of this fairy tale.

The Disappearance of James H___

Hal Duncan

1,000 wds est

[Online] A scary, sickly little something that may or may not spin off the Flashman books in the horror that is nineteenth-century British boys’ schools.

A Field Guide to Ugly Places

Patrick Samphire

5,000 wds est

[Online] [Review] An out of work, out of love man gets a mysterious offer of hope.


Copyright © 2005, Bluejack. All Rights Reserved.

About Bluejack

Bluejack resides in Seattle. In addition to publishing the Internet Review of Science Fiction, he herds cats for an Internet startup, designs and develops distributed software applications, and dabbles in a broad range of less useful endeavors.

COMMENTS!

Aug 1, 21:49 by IROSF
Let's talk about short fiction!

Bluejack's reviews are here.
Aug 2, 00:43 by Jed Hartman
Re author gender: I, too, would like to see someone update the stats from Sue Linville's article SF & Fantasy in the New Millennium: Women Publishing Short Fiction.

In the meantime, I have two bits of data, for whatever they're worth:

1. For some time now, roughly 30%-40% of submissions to Strange Horizons have been by women, and roughly 60%-70% have been by men. (The ranges are because anywhere from 6% to 11% of a given year's submissions are by authors whose genders we don't know.) The percentage of the stories we publish that are by women has varied over the years from about 40% to about 60%. We don't consider author gender in making our decisions any more than any other prozine editor does, but somehow the percentage of stories by women that we publish ends up a lot higher than in most other prozines. (That "somehow" isn't meant to be sarcastic or snide or to have an agenda; I honestly don't know what the reasons are.)

2. Sci Fiction: Interestingly, Ellen published about 80% stories by men in 2001 and 2002, about 65% stories by men in 2003 and 2004, and so far has published exactly 50% stories by men in the first half of 2005. I draw no conclusions from this, but I do find it interesting.
Aug 2, 00:57 by Bluejack
Thanks for the data, and the link to Sue Linville's original study. I'll also be interested to see what the numbers look like at Asimov's, although defining when Gardner's inventory is fully out of the system might be tricky.
Aug 2, 09:16 by Cheryl Morgan
I haven't counted, but I'm pretty sure I review more books by men than by women. Part of that, of course, is a reflection of the type of books I tend to review. I could easily up the female quotient by reviewing more high fantasy books, but then I'd be rude about most of them.
Aug 2, 10:03 by Bluejack
Mind you, the interesting stat isn't just "more men than women," but "proportionally more men than women than are provided" -- for an editor, this has to be matrixed against the slush pile; for a reviewer, this would be tallied against what is published. Or, in your case Cheryl, what is published in your area of interest.

I'm going to try to work out the tallies for myself so far in 2005.
Aug 2, 10:30 by twosheds
I don't see the hand-wringing over our human imperfections. The reader knows a review (or decision to publish) is a matter of personal taste and opinion. Assuming a person could counter-balance their gender preferences (real or statistically enhanced) how many other preferences and biases do we still carry? We can't eliminate them all nor should we want to or deny what it is to be human. The same issue occurs in criminal justice (my expertise). Once the idea was proposed to eliminate racial bias in sentence by having computers do the sentencing. Just plug in the factors of the case. But people didn't like putting their fate into the hands of a machine.

Reviews are much more a matter of opinion than criminal sentencing. But if we could program a computer to give us reviews or decide which stories to buy (with the guarantee of bias-free decisions) would that be preferable?

So be a man, and stop worrying.
Aug 2, 10:33 by Bluejack
lol.

I'm not worried two sheds. I'm interested.
Aug 2, 10:40 by Bluejack
And for those who really like numbers, here's a study Dave Truesdale did back in the mid-nineties. Apparently the Linville essay built on this study.

Now, almost ten years later, it would be interesting to undertake an update of Dave's thorough analysis... although the critical component is invisible to us: the gender ratio in the slush pile.

And just to add a bit more to twosheds point: I am not saying that there needs to be a direct or exact correlation between the slush and the published product, or between what is published and what is reviewed. Naturally, an editor is under a heavy mandate to publish what he or she believes will be most appreciated by the readers. And, for the large part I think editors do that.

But it can be informative to actually look at the numbers now and then. Sometimes they reveal interesting patterns.

Plus, I like the stats. It's probably why I like baseball so much.
Aug 2, 13:22 by Ellen Datlow
There really IS no conclusion. It's the luck of the draw in any given year. I've found more stories I've liked by women the past couple of years. I would say this is a change, after more than 20 year's editing short fiction magazines.


>>>2. Sci Fiction: Interestingly, Ellen published about 80% stories by men in 2001 and 2002, about 65% stories by men in 2003 and 2004, and so far has published exactly 50% stories by men in the first half of 2005. I draw no conclusions from this, but I do find it interesting.
Aug 2, 18:05 by twosheds
Not a lot moved me in F&SF this issue. The "Quantum Bit.." stories were too preachy-reminded me of a philosophy class I took in college one semester. I did like "Age of Miracles." Not enough of a sense of danger, but I loved the alt. history approach. Gave up on "Magic for Beginner" on the 5th page. Maybe too high-brow for me. I grew bored and cramped my hand correcting POV errors. (Ok, ok…when you’re a great writer you can mess with POV). The Carter Scholz time travel story was interesting. I assume the lack of quotation marks was intentional (like improvised jazz music not adhering to convention). Sorry to sound like such a downer. I kind of liked “Housewarming”. Again, POV problems and clichéd dialogue. I was also uncomfortable with the author's racial references. Why was it necessary to describe a police office who is purely incidental and unimportant to a scene as a “big, black detective.” ?

What I really liked was Realms of Fantasy. "Broken Tickers" by Joe Murphy was great! I vividly remember his earlier story based on this setting. Very original combined with smooth prose. His hook is the folk science. Vaguely like steam punk in which steam technology evolves forward hundreds of years. In this case, rural craftsmanship evolves to the point of the ability to create self-aware robots (Amish punk?).
Aug 2, 21:27 by Bluejack
Amish Punk! Love it!
Aug 3, 07:51 by Carrie Vaughn
You've always been very kind to my stories, bluejack, in case you were worried. :)
Aug 3, 13:03 by Douglas Hoffman
Re: The Vegetable Lamb

I'm glad to see I wasn't the only one befuddled by that one. I think you made better progress on it than me, though.

Thanks for checking out my review, too.
Aug 4, 16:53 by Bluejack
Hey, I haven't seen anything from you in a while, Carrie... can we expect to see some stories anywhere sometime soon?
Aug 9, 11:29 by Carrie Vaughn
Ooh, a bit late checking the forum...

The answer is...yes. I have stories coming up in Talebones 31, the December Paradox, an upcoming Weird Tales...and my novel's out in November.

*does a happy dance*
*has a nervous breakdown from waiting*
Aug 9, 12:56 by Bluejack
A novel, eh? What's it called, what kind of story is it?
Aug 10, 13:25 by Carrie Vaughn
"Kitty and the Midnight Hour," about a werewolf named Kitty who starts a call-in radio talk show for the supernaturally disadvantaged. Let's see if I can do a hyperlink...
www.carrievaughn.com
Aug 11, 12:43 by Bluejack
Cool cover, Carrie. I'll look for it when it's out.
Aug 18, 10:13 by twosheds
As much as I liked Realms of Fantasy this issue, I noticed that there were three stories that used a rather standard device: if someone knows your "real" name, they have some sort of power over you. All the stories were good, but three in one issue? And I think the device is a bit overdone in general (in fantasy genre). Just me.

Want to Post? Evil spammers have forced us to require login:

Sign In

Email:

Password:

 

NOTE: IRoSF no longer requires a 'username' -- why try to remember anything other than your own email address?

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now!

Problems logging in? Try our Problem Solver