The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction #723, January/February 2016

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Other Reviews:
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
Nicky Magas, Tangent Online
Lois Tilton, Locus
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Mark Watson, Best SF (forthcoming)
Various, Goodreads

Fiction:
Vortex • short story by Gregory Benford ♥♥♥
Number Nine Moon • novelette by Alex Irvine ♥♥♥
Rockets Red • short story by Mary Robinette Kowal ♥♥
Smooth Stones and Empty Bones • short story by Bennett North ♥♥♥+
The White Piano • novelette by David Gerrold ♥♥♥
Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going to Do? • short story by Nick Wolven ♥
Robot from the Future • short story by Terry Bisson ♥♥
Squidtown • short story by Leo Vladimirsky ♥♥♥
Touch Me All Over • short story by Betsy James ♥♥
Telltale • novelette by Matthew Hughes ♥♥♥+
The Visionaries • short story by Albert E. Cowdrey ♥♥♥
Braid of Days and Wake of Nights • short story by E. Lily Yu ♥♥

Non-fiction:
Cover • Bob Eggleton
Books to Look For • by Charles de Lint
Books • by James Sallis
Welcome to Pleistocene Park • essay by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty
The World, the Flesh, and the Apocalypse • essay by David J. Skal
Cartoons • Mark Heath, J. P. Rini, Arthur Masear
Coming Attractions
Curiosities: The Truth About Wilson, by W. S. K. Webb (1962) • essay by Graham Andrews

This issue’s cover by Bob Eggleton has unfortunately been mutilated by the barcode and display date. I’ve commented on barcode problems before while reviewing an Asimov’s SF cover. If I were laying out the cover of this one I think I would have a strip at the bottom of the page with the barcode and the author names you want displayed. Also, I’d move the magazine title to the top of the page leaving non-overprinted artwork in the middle. Alternatively, if you can turn the barcode on its side then the Galaxy inverted L layout is a possibility. I know that publishers have to labour under various cover-design constraints but God only knows what the artists think when they see this kind of thing done to their artwork.

According to the first story introduction this Martian landscape cover has three stories ‘matched’ to it so I’ll deal with those first. Vortex by Gregory Benford is from the same series as his novels The Martian Race and The Sunborn. I suspect this one is probably going to be part of a third but it is self-contained. It tells of various research teams on Mars and of friction between, in particular, the Australian and Chinese teams as the US and Koreans fight on Earth. Under the Martian surface there is a planet wide alien organism called the ‘mat’ which is developing diseased grey patches the scientists cannot explain. The resolution of this problem is relatively straightforward but this is offset by some vivid writing describing this huge alien amongst other things:

Snottites gleamed in their handlamps, dangling in moist lances from the ceiling. She steered well clear of the shiny colonies of single-celled extremophilic bacteria—like small stalactites, but with the consistency of mucus. She waved the team back. “Those mean the Mat is moving a lot of fluid around.”
Snottites got their name from how they looked, and their energy from digesting the volcanic sulfur in the warm water dripping down from above. Brush one of those highly acidic rods and their battery acid would cut through a suit in moments. A sharp, short ouch, quite fatal. The Chinese nodded, backing away. Good; they’ve learned some of the many dangers here.

Meters above in the dim pearly glow she saw Mat sheets hanging in a vast cavern. Under their beams this grotto came alive with shimmering luminescence: burnt oranges, dapplings of vermilion, splashes of delicate turquoise. Another silence. Inside the beast. p.12/13

If the novels weren’t 400-odd pages long I’d probably pick one up.
Number Nine Moon by Alex Irvine is a novelette about three people who go to Hellas basin at the end of a total Mars evacuation to see what they can ‘recover’. Shortly after their arrival there is an accident that forces them to attempt to use an old fashioned rocket to get into orbit. The fun in this one isn’t the straightforward and slightly unlikely story but the interplay of the characters and the colourful way the story is told:

Steuby was sixty-two years old, born in 2010, and had only ever seen one other person die in front of him.
That was back on the Moon, where he’d worked for almost fifteen years. A guy named Walter Navarro, looking the wrong way when someone swung a steel beam around at a construction site. The end of the beam smashed the faceplate of Walter’s helmet. The thing Steuby remembered most about it was the way Walter’s screams turned into ice fog pouring out and drifting down onto the regolith. By the time they got him inside he was dead, with frozen blood in his eyes from where the shards of the faceplate had cut him. Steuby had gotten out of the construction business as soon as he’d collected his next paycheck. After that he’d run tourist excursions, and seen some weird shit, but nothing weirder than Walter Navarro’s dying breaths making him sparkle in the vacuum.
p.37

Together the compounds would fuel a rocket via a hypergolic reaction. One of Steuby’s favorite words, hypergolic. Like just being golic wasn’t enough. p.38

The third Mars story is Rockets Red by Mary Robinette Kowal, It is a pleasant enough if slight story about the interaction between a mother and son when a fireworks display looks like it may not happen due to a technical failure. This occurs on a parallel-world Mars that was reached in the 1950s, and is a prequel to the author’s 2014 Hugo winner The Lady Astronaut of Mars (first published on Tor.com).2

After the three Mars SF stories there are a couple of fantasy stories. First up is a promising debut by Bennett North, Smooth Stones and Empty Bones. This is a pretty good tale that tells of a witch’s teenage daughter who has a box of stones that can bring dead things back to life:

There’s a skeleton in the chicken coop. It’s some bare collection of abandoned bones, maybe a former fox, and it’s slishing through the pine needles and bumping liplessly against the gate. The chickens, for their part, don’t look concerned. p.68

Her girlfriend’s young brother is missing in the woods, feared dead. This initially gives off the same kind of vibe as Stephen King’s Pet Sematary or Keith Roberts’ The Witch, but it is its own story and has a couple of interesting occurrences and clever developments up its sleeve.
At the other end of the writer experience range is David Gerrold with The White Piano. This novelette is a competent ghost story (more of a compliment than you may think) about two children who have lost their mother and the grandmother who has come to stay with them. The boy starts hearing scratching at night and fears it may be a ghost. After a few pages of this narrative arc the story veers onto another one. The grandmother tells them a long tale about when she was a child during the war, living in a large house in the north of England. The dead wife of the house’s owner was a pianist so a lot of classical and other piano music subsequently features.

The next three stories are back in the SF groove and the first is the only one in the issue I didn’t particularly care for. Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going to Do? by Nick Wolven is an ‘if this goes on’ piece about a man who is subject to ‘media terrorism’. All his phones, TVs, computers, his work sound system, etc., blare out harrowing messages. This comes to a peak when his recently installed home ‘Ubervision’ system—TV screens on all home surfaces—is activated:

When I get home, the foyer is dark. But not for long. As soon as I enter, the door begins to weep. The ceiling fills with hurrying flame. Burning people run toward me from within the phantasmal walls. Even the floor is a field of carnage. As I walk to the kitchen, I tread on the faces of the maimed. The kitchen cabinets tell me that churches are burning, that dogs are starving, that a human-rights worker has been killed by forced detegumentation. p.126

Unfortunately by this point the relentlessness of all this had worn me out and I was thinking ‘turn off the TV, dummy.’
He gets free of it in the last chapter but this doesn’t seem to be explained, or maybe by then my attention had drifted. Also not explained (spoiler) is why he finally sends money to the people who were making his life a misery, but perhaps that is some moral point going way over my head.
Robot from the Future by Terry Bisson is about a young boy and his grandfather who try to obtain ‘gas-o-line’ in a ‘Greaned’ future for robots that have come back in time and are stranded. This has an offbeat and interesting voice:

Instead of attacking, the robot stretches out its arms. Then it starts talking. “Gas-o-line,” it says.
It has a voice like a lady.
I don’t say anything.
“Gas-o-line, Theodore,” it says. “Please help.”
“How do you know my name?”
“We just do,” it says. “You are eleven,” it says. “That’s a great age.”
I agree but don’t say anything. I’ve been eleven for almost three months. It means you can go places by yourself and make up your mind about things. It’s totally different from ten.
p.134

Unfortunately that is all it has because the story doesn’t really go anywhere.
Squidtown by Leo Vladimirsky is an interesting mood piece set in the same series as Collar (F&SF, March/April 2014). A released Unionist prisoner in a future Islamic State of Texas is back home with his sister in a place called Squidtown. Their conversation takes up most of the piece, complicated by the fact he has had his tongue cut out in prison:

“You don’t have to type everything,” she says. “I understood your baby babbling. I’ll understand you now.”
THE WAY YOU’RE SLURRING MAYBE YOU SHOULD TYPE TOO
She yanks the phone out of my hand and starts tapping.
“How’s this?” she asks as she shows me the screen.
DON’T BE A DICK
She jabs me in the side—another reminder of home.
“Why don’t you just get a new one? I have money now,” she continues. “They can regrow it superquick. Like, two days.”
PRISON DOCTORS OFFERED IN D’ALLAHS
“So you’d rather suffer in silence?”
CAN TALK. PREFER THIS.
p.149

An interesting if slightly unlikely background but I’ll dig out the other story.

Four fantasies close out the issue, although the third could probably be labelled as SF. Touch Me All Over by Betsy James is about a primitive-ish woman who is a ‘twiner’ or weaver. She finds a glass knife at a badger’s sett and from that point on everything man-made she touches falls apart. She leaves her village clothed only in a bearskin and (spoiler) is later discovered by two men, one of whom tries to rape her. All his clothes start disintegrating and the pack falls off his mule. The men flee. Subsequently she finds a bound man on top of the pack. The woman releases the man and they find shelter in a cave. Matters develop between them but ultimately this is a story with a good idea that doesn’t have an ending to match.
The other issue highlight, apart from the North story, is Telltale, Matthew Hughes’ novelette set in his ‘Archonate’ universe. I won’t say much about this so I don’t spoil it, but it is a well plotted story about a guild thief called Raffalon who ends up trapped in a cabin in an enchanted forest telling stories to a woman, or something that looks like a woman. A clever and inventive traditional fantasy adventure.
The Visionaries by Albert E. Cowdrey is the one that could be fantasy, SF or horror depending on how you squint. Jimmy and Morrie have a company called Paranormal Services and they need to clear an area of forest that is ‘haunted’—which results in workmen being injured when tree felling, spooked animals, etc. It has a convincing locale and characters and about three-quarters of the way through (spoiler) it pivots into a story about what is to come in the area rather than what might have happened in the past.
The close-out story is Braid of Days and Wake of Nights by E. Lily Yu. This story involves a young woman with Stage 4 cancer, an estranged husband, and a friend trying to track down a unicorn in Central Park. I suspect readers’ reactions to this cocktail will be wildly variable, from those that find it mawkish and contrived to those who find it enchanting and heart-wrenching/warming. Myself, I’m somewhere in the middle; I can see what the writer is trying to pull off in this story but don’t think it is completely successful, probably because (spoiler) of a wish-fulfilment element that made me increasingly restless as the tale developed. The final scene pivots to a bleaker ending, but too late for me.
While I’m discussing this story a word (no, let’s be honest, a fairly long moan) about the dedication in the introduction:

Our final story for this issue is dedicated in part to Jay Lake, one of the most prolific and promising young writers of the decade that stretched from 2004, when he won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in Science Fiction, to 2014, when cancer cut his life prematurely short. p.236

I don’t think that short story dedications in a magazine are a good idea, and if you are going to have dedications then it would be better to put a line or two at the end of the story. If you have a dedication in the introduction it is going to colour readers’ reactions to the story before they even start it: with this one I found myself slowly getting into an emotional crash position and muttering ‘Brace, brace, brace’ under my breath. My other problem with dedications is this: think of the poor reviewer, writers. If you tell me your story is dedicated to your three god-children who were all wiped out in a terrorist outrage it makes it much harder for me to tell you that your story sucked … but not impossible.

The best of the non-fiction is an interesting science article (again, more of a compliment than you realise) from Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty. Welcome to Pleistocene Park is about melting permafrost increasing global warming, and a Russian scientist who is attempting to covert parts of the Russian steppe back to grassland to ameliorate this.
In Books to Look For, Charles de Lint reviews half a dozen fantasy books including the latest two by Stephen King. Sallis reviews collections by Dale Bailey and Tananarive Due in Books, and Graham Andrews contributes a Curiosities piece. David J. Skal reviews the movies Air and Z for Zachariah in The World, the Flesh, and the Apocalypse.
My other favourite non-fiction items after the science article were the cartoons, which are a distinctive part of F&SF.

This is the first modern issue of F&SF that I’ve read for a long time (and although I had both the paper and Kindle issues, I read the latter3). I was pleasantly surprised. The overall quality of this edition is uniformly high with a couple of quite good pieces. Recommended.

  1. A couple of rough cover designs so you can see what I’m suggesting. The typeface at the bottom isn’t quite right, but it gives you an idea of what I mean by another letterbox at the bottom and what the art may look like:
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    This is the Galaxy one: the inverse L should probably be thinner:FSF20160102altgx600
  2. Kowal’s The Lady Astronaut from Mars can be found at Tor.com
  3. The Kindle edition of the magazine is not a patch on Asimov’s SF which lets you choose between two formats: one that looks like a PDF identical to the physical magazine, and the normal Kindle layout. F&SF only offers you the latter and it is a little broken. Apart from the odd formatting problem involving spaces at either side of a comma, this is what my contents page looks like on my iPad 3:FSF20160102kindle600

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