The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction #724, March-April 2016

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Other Reviews:
Steve Fahnestalk, Amazing Stories
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
Jason McGrogor, Tangent Online
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Mark Watson, Best SF (forthcoming)
Various, Goodreads

Fiction:
The Ghost Penny Post • novelette by Marc Laidlaw ♥♥♥+
Red in Tooth and Cog • novelette by Cat Rambo ♥♥♥♥
Belief • short story by Nancy Kress ♥♥
The Liar • novella by John P. Murphy ♥♥♥
Nanabojou and the Race Question • short story by Justin Barbeau ♥♥
The Language of the Silent • novelette by Juliette Wade and Sheila Finch ♥♥
Diamond • short story by Chris DeVito ♥
The Silver Strands of Alpha Crucis-d • short story by N. J. Schrock ♥
A Mother’s Arms • novelette by Sarina Dorie ♥♥♥+
Golden Gate Blues • short story by James L. Cambias ♥♥♥

Non-fiction:
Cover • Jason Van Hollander
Books to Look For • by Charles de Lint
Musing on Books • by Michelle West
The Potato Farmer that Worked the Problem • film review by Kathi Maio
The Prince and the Pulpster • humour by Paul Di Filippo
Coming Attractions
Curiosities: Monk’s Magic, by Alexander De Comeau (1931) • review by Graham Andrews
Cartoons • by Danny Shanahan, Arthur Masear, Joseph Farris, S. Harris, Mark Heath

The Ghost Penny Post by Marc Laidlaw is an entertaining light fantasy that gets the fiction off to a good start in this issue. Hewell, a Post Office inspector around the time of the Penny Black stamp, introduces himself to another passenger on the coach:

“I myself am free to come forward in my public capacity as an inspector of the Royal Mail. I am traveling only slightly farther along, to the village proper, Binderwood. You are aware, perhaps, of certain irregularities—one might even characterize them as abuses—in the local mail? London has grown alarmed. I am here to investigate.” p.9

During his investigations he sees for himself these irregularities in the mail:

The letters in Hewell’s left hand all bore the same peculiar stamp: it was engraved with care and craft, but printed in violet ink on a press whose plates were minutely out of register, such that the profile was ever so slightly blurred. This figure of royalty wore a fanciful three-tipped crown and was definitely not Victoria Regina. The profile’s most remarkable feature was a sharp dot of carmine red marking out the iris of the eye. As a work of art and amateur production, it was intriguing. However, it also bore the legend “One Penny,” which rendered it a competitor to the Royal Mail, a blatant forgery, and therefore intolerable. p.13

Matters develop when it becomes apparent that there is a supernatural kingdom running in parallel to the real world:

Spectralia’s courier was in a state of panic. He had never felt such dread, not through all the conflicts and quarrels that had beset the Kingdom during his tenure. The Dispute of the Seventeen Borders; the Deputation of Ghosts; the Battle of the Sea Stars—none of these events had involved him directly. Even the War of the Woods, in which he was conscripted, had been fought and finished quickly, resolved with several duels, one sword fight, and a formal armistice followed by cake. Although the Kingdom had certainly been in danger and dealt with its share of spies and subterfuges, the threat had never before come from beyond. Internal pressures were one thing. Civil wars flared up continually, but Her Ladyship, the Ghost Queen, had a strong and fair hand when it came to managing her subjects. This was a different matter. What bulwarks could she erect against the actions of external principalities? What chance had Spectralia against the far-off yet famously meddlesome influence of London? The people there obeyed no monarch but their own! p.18

Another one for the Best Fantasy of the Year collections.
Continuing and improving on the strong start to this issue is Red in Tooth and Cog, a novelette by Cat Rambo. It is not often I get a sense of wonder buzz from a modern story but I loved this one. It is set in a near-future park and is about a woman who has her phone stolen by a feral household appliance, a mobile can-opener/corkscrew/nutcracker combination. The rest of the story charts her observation of various appliances and how she starts to engage with both them and the park robot:

They both watched the newly swollen manticore, still ungainly with its acquisitions, trundle into the underbrush. It was quieter than she would’ve expected for a machine of that size. “It’s hard for those big machines to replicate,” the robot said. The flat black eyes slid toward her. “I’ve told you, you shouldn’t feed them so much. You’ve upset the ecosystem.”
“I don’t bring much,” she said. “A few batteries, some smaller parts.” It made a sound somewhere between a buzz and a glottal stop. “They will think all humans are tender-hearted like you,” it said. “Most people regard them as vermin. And there are more of them here than you imagine.”
p.48

The only minor criticism I have of this (spoiler) is the slightly ambivalent/unclear last section which reads as if the writer didn’t quite have the courage to let the generally feel-good ending stand as is. Notwithstanding this, a story for the Best of the Year anthologies and awards shortlists.

The rest of the issue is more of a mixed bag although not without a few good stories. Belief by Nancy Kress is probably one of the more ‘serious’ stories in the issue—not that it is that serious but it occurred to me that quite a few of the other stories in this issue tend towards the other end of the spectrum.
This story follows twin but connected storylines about a mother and her fifteen year old daughter and starts with an argument about the latter wanting to attend an iarrthoir, or ‘seeker’, course and the emotionally-controlled, scientist mother objecting. The daughter storyline describes her attendance at the course and subsequent experiences, whereas the mother deals with a bipolar colleague who is struggling to come to terms with published ground-breaking research that has prempted his similar results. Both these strands are interesting and at times intriguing, which makes it even more of a pity when the story ends with no real resolution.
The Liar by John P. Murphy is the longest story in the issue, a 25,000 word, sixty page novella described as a cross between Garrison Keillor and Stephen King. It certainly has elements of both those writers in its story of Greg Kellogg, who is a New England small town handyman and also a special kind of liar:

I gave the rake a tug and there was a sharp crack. I plucked off my canvas gloves and knelt down—not a thing I do lightly on a cool fall day, but not anything I worry overmuch about yet, either—and inspected the broken bamboo spoke. It’d stuck in the ground, and the rake was old, and I hadn’t been any too gentle. The tine broke off in one piece, though: ought to be an easy lie. I brushed away the dirt and fitted it back together as tight as I could. “Looks solid to me,” I muttered. “Ayuh, must have been mistaken. That ain’t broke at all.” I waggled it carefully to illustrate my point. “Couldn’t do that if it were broke,” I continued, picturing it as one long, strong piece. “No, and I wouldn’t do it if it were cracked. Wouldn’t make sense, would it? Must be fine, seems to me.”  p.96

After one of the elderly locals has a minor accident he ends up as the town’s sexton and is told he can expect a death on November the fifth: one or more youngsters in the area have died on that day every year since the forties.
After getting off to a pretty good start this becomes more of a curate’s egg: the good parts are the local colour and a nice turn of phrase:

New Hampshire natives are split on the subject of retiring to Florida. Some consider it a treason, a surrender to the cold and snow; they speak of retirees as of the dead or the disgraced. Others think of Florida as a kind of Yankee Valhalla, a just reward for a lifetime of early rising and snow shoveling and windshield scraping. p.100

The not so good include a female pastor’s (in whom Kellog has an emotional interest) stereotypical and problematic teenage daughter, and also the possible source of the trouble: (spoiler-ish) a crashed wartime B-17 Flying Fortress on a nearby hill.

Forty-odd accidental deaths, one a year on the same day. At least one, I corrected myself, remembering the car crash. Their graves in Stonewall Cemetery had been marked with the same bomb emblem as a WWII bomber that had crashed around the same time of year in 1943. p.119

What probably doesn’t help this story is its length. Once I stopped being entirely convinced about the maguffin (about two-thirds of the way through) I found it started dragging a little. Even if I hadn’t felt this way I suspect it could have done with some trimming and tightening in the middle and later stages. Not bad overall, for all my gripes.

The next few stories didn’t work for me for a variety of reasons. Given, as we shall see, the better finish to this issue, I wonder if the editors think this is the weaker stuff too: I believe the idea in magazine construction is put your strongest stories at the beginning and the end so that readers continue reading the magazine once started and then go away with pleasant memories!
Nanabojou and the Race Question by Justin Barbeau is a tale about a Native American called Nanabojou—who created the Americas—going to the 1920s Virginia Senate as they create their race laws. This is essentially an history lesson with a bit of magical realism/fantasy tossed into the mix, and is OK if you treat it as such I guess.
The Language of the Silent by Juliette Wade and Sheila Finch is about a linguist who is deafened in space accident shortly before the signing of a treaty on an alien planet. As she explores the world she discovers another species used as slaves. This is OK overall but fizzles out at the end. I also felt that the backstory about the linguist’s grandmother added little to the mix.
Diamond by Chris DeVito is one of those stories about American sports, baseball this time, which occasionally turn up in the magazine. This one has an underwhelming twist ending.
The Silver Strands of Alpha Crucis-d by N. J. Schrock is about sentient, silver, threadlike aliens on the planet Alpha Crucis-d and how the carbon dioxide the human explorers are producing is killing them. It reads like a 1500 word synopsis of a longer novelette and should have been sent back to the writer for plot and character expansion and the addition of a more can-do, problem-solving ending. A missed opportunity.

As previously mentioned matters improve with the last two offerings. A Mother’s Arms by Sarina Dorie is a pretty good story about an alien ‘octopillar’ mother:

I was what my people called eightblessed, one child for each of my arms. I rested in the immense boughs of the flowering nectar tree. Each of my outstretched tentacles tended to a baby octopillar. My babies tangled themselves in leafy twigs and experimentally suctioncupped their tentacles to themselves and me. I had never felt more full of pride and joy as I did when I birthed my litter. p.217

She subsequently loses all her children as a result of human aircraft/spaceships fighting aerial creatures above her colony. One of the human craft crash-lands nearby and she goes to it seeking revenge. Once there she finds what she thinks is a larvae/child in it, relents, and decides to adopt it… This is old-school SF—some might even say a little cutesy—but I thoroughly enjoyed it and will seek out an earlier story with the same background (The Day of the Nuptial Flight, F&SF July/August 2014). I hope we see more of this series.
Golden Gate Blues by James L. Cambias is an amusing tale about Anthony Mace, a private detective commissioned by Dr Kraken the super-villain to investigate the death of a giant octopus that was captured after attacking the Golden Gate Bridge.

[Dr Kraken said,] “One of the cruelest restrictions of my parole is that I am to have no contact with any living cephalopods, or enter any facility containing them.”
“Kind of rough if the catch of the day is calamari,” I put in.
Kraken’s amiable expression became a glare of hate and fury. “That word,” he said, “is never uttered in my presence.”
“Sorry.”
He got himself under control and went on. “Despite those onerous conditions, I still maintain an active interest in the welfare of our tentacled cousins. One day, when the stars are right, they will inherit the Earth….”
His voice was taking on a “you-fools” tone, so I tried to drag him back on track.
p.240-241

Mace investigates the octopus killing against a background of superhero ‘capes’, massive sharks and alien software that has been installed in the Golden Gate Bridge so it can protect itself from giant creature attacks. Good fun.

As to the non-fiction, The Potato Farmer that Worked the Problem by Kathi Maio is an interesting and positive film column about The Martian. The first part of the column gives a brief history of Mars movies which puts the current one in context. This is something that book review columns could badly do with. Books to Look For by Charles de Lint (four out of seven reviewed books are series ones about vampires/werewolves, etc.) and Musing on Books by Michelle West gave me no idea of where the books they cover sit in the field.
The Prince and the Pulpster by Paul Di Filippo is another of his amusing Plumage from Pegasus columns—you could call this one a story—about a Wall Street tycoon who swaps places with a writer and finds the life, ah, less idyllic than he was expecting…
Coming Attractions trails a forthcoming ‘Alaric’ story by Phyllis Eisenstein as well as a ‘Special Author’ issue (David Gerrold?) to commemorate Star Trek’s 50th birthday.  Curiosities by Graham Andrews reviews a book that doesn’t seem to be available for purchase anywhere. Oh well. I didn’t like the cartoons so much this issue as some of the punchlines didn’t work for me.

Overall, this is a worthwhile issue. Going beyond that it is probably too soon to come to any conclusions about what kind of editor C. C. Finlay is after two (allbeit double) issues. However, there seems to preponderance of more traditional and entertaining work—and perhaps more fantasy—than F&SF has published under some of its other editors. It certainly makes for an entertaining read.

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