The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction #726, July-August 2016

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Other Reviews:
Steve Fahnestalk, Amazing Stories
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
Nicky Magus, Tangent Online
Patrick Mahon, SF Crowsnest
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Various, Goodreads

Fiction:
The Vanishing Kind • novella by Lavie Tidhar ♥♥
The Desert of Vanished Dreams • novelette by Phyllis Eisenstein ♥♥♥
Vishnu Summer • novelette by David Prill ♥
The Thing on the Shelf • novelette by David Gerrold ♥
Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful • short story by Gregor Hartmann ♥♥♥
Spells Are Easy if You Have The Right Psychic Energy • short story by Dominica Phetteplace ♥♥♥
An Open Letter to the Person Who Took My Smoothie from the Break Room Fridge • short story by Oliver Buckram ♥♥♥+
Last One Out • short story by K. B. Rylander ♥♥♥+
Killer • short story by Bruce McAllister ♥♥
Jesus Has Forgiven Me. Why Can’t You? • short story by Betsy Phillips ♥♥

Non-fiction:
Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful • cover by Monolithic Studios
Cartoons • Arthur Masear, Nick Downes
Books to Look For • by Charles de Lint
Books • by James Sallis
Films: Bunker Mentality • by Kathi Maio
Science: Our Super Cool System • by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty
Martian Garden • poem by John Philip Johnson
Coming Attractions
Plumage From Pegasus • Paul Di Filippo
Curiosities: Star of the Unborn, by Franz Werfel (1946) • review by Robert Eldridge

I’ve always been a sucker for ‘Britain occupied by Nazi Germany’ stories1 so Lavie Tidhar’s novella, The Vanishing Kind, gets off to a good start for me:

During the rebuilding of London in the 1950s, they had erected a large Ferris wheel on the south bank of the Thames. When it was opened, it cost two Reichsmarks for a ride, but it was seldom busy. London after the war wasn’t a place you went to on holiday.

Gunther Sloan comes over to the UK to help an old flame who has sent him a letter saying she fears for her life. He ends up in a web of intrigue that involves the Gestapo, drugs and Jews. For the most part this is an engaging and readable story but the problem I had with it is that it falls apart at the end. I was completely mystified by several aspects of the plot. Why did Ulla write the note to Gunther asking him to help in the first place? What was the connection between Ulla and Blucher and Pirelli? The plot doesn’t make any sense ultimately, and the last reveal is just one twist too far.
A lesser criticism of this is that the world-building is rather on the thin side. Except for the first paragraph there are not that many period details, and mentions of a number of London streets and bookshops don’t put much skin on the bones. There are some nice touches though:

“When the occupation is completed there I will go to America,” Janson said. “I have a great admiration for the Americans, for all that they lost their war.”
“What will you do?” Gunther said.
“I would become a writer for their pulps.”
“It’s a living,” Gunther allowed. “Not a very profitable one, though.”
“I write quickly and I have what it requires most,” Janson said.
“And what’s that?” Gunther said.
“Despair.”

Those stories will be for the Barry Malzberg edited Astounding Science Fiction of the alternate 1950s, then.2
Alaric the teleporting minstrel makes a welcome return in Phyllis Eisenstein’s The Desert of Vanished Dreams, the first of three novelettes in this issue. I remembered reading these stories from the 1970’s F&SF3 and half-remembered them as fantasy but (spoiler) this one has a definite science fictional vibe.
Alaric is part of a camel-train that is travelling across the desert and, short of water, their leader Piros decides to detour to a strange city. After they set up camp outside the walls, Piros tells Alaric of his previous visits and how he has never gone inside. During the night one of their men goes missing and Piros and Alaric go to find him. Deep inside the city they find a dead King on a throne wearing a crown. When Alaric subsequently tries on the crown he finds himself in control of the city, a technologically advanced one that seems to have travelled through space in the distant past. The hunt for the missing man continues….
Vishnu Summer by David Prill is another story in this issue whose ending I didn’t understand.
This one is about a one-armed girl in a mid-Western town and her odd, mural-painting mother:

Ma was up that durned rickety ladder, paints on the top step, her big brush working, more paint on her than the brush, her eyes shut, guided by another set of laws, muttering oaths, prayers, incantations, who knew, a laundry list of the strange. I tried to avert my eyes from the never-ending mural, partly because I was afraid Ma was gonna fall, mostly because the subject was me and my life. She started the mural right before my accident, painted my soon-to-be-ex-arm planted in a field, just one more stalk of corn waiting to be picked. Painted me falling off my bike before it happened, except it was a giant centipede instead of a bike. Lost a tooth chasing a fox out of the henhouse and she painted that, too, only instead of a fox it was a devil with horns and a butcher knife. My whole life, painted like a winding creek across the backside of a barn. Her paintings didn’t always make sense right away. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and bingo, I got it.

One day a motorcade carrying a three-armed man passes her farm. He is in town to be tried for the murder of a man and woman. The rest of the story concerns the interaction between the girl and the three-armed man—among other things he sings at the country fair and at the opera house as she spectates. The ending (spoiler) has her ‘falling’ into one of her mother’s murals and coming out again, but now she has two arms. She once again sees the motorcade carrying the three-armed man. As it passes the farm she takes off her arm… Answers on a postcard.
The Thing on the Shelf by David Gerrold is supposedly an account of a horror convention written for Gordon Van Gelder, the publisher of F&SF. It tells of Gerrold driving to Portland and being awarded the Stoker Award for one of his stories. Unusual things happen at the convention and the situation becomes even more peculiar when he takes his award home. It is a model of a haunted house and the door seems to keep on closing by itself, not to mention the lights that come on in the little windows.
Up to the midway point this is moderately entertaining but it then rambles on at far too great a length to an ending where the secret behind the award is revealed to him by Harlan Ellison, but is one he cannot put it in print.
A lot of the bloat is far too self-reverential:

[He] also says the way I ramble lazily through my narratives, dredging up memories like unplugging a clogged toilet, is a voice—I’m turning into the self-deprecating Marcel Proust of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

I wish.
At one point there is an irrelevant four page anecdote about ‘Chuck’ which basically ends with a lame ‘if I can believe in that I can believe in this’ prop for the story. And there is a seemingly endless amount of name-dropping as well, all of which is capped with the aforementioned cop-out ending.  I hope his two stories in the special issue next month show more restraint and discipline than this one.

After a disappointing group of longer stories, a handful of the shorter ones compensate.
Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful by Gregor Hartmann is an entertaining story about a tech start up that stumbles on a physical effect during manufacturing process. This results in a product that can make transient coloured mist out of air, and several devices are marketed. They diversify into making different colours and then try to improve the persistence of the mist….
Spells Are Easy if You Have the Right Psychic Energy by Dominica Phetteplace is slighter than her recent work in Asimov’s SF but I still enjoyed it. It tells of a woman and the various magic spells she knows, and has the characteristic Phettplace voice:

Healing magic can be pretty silly and it mostly doesn’t work, otherwise there’d be no cancer or eczema. It is somehow easier to manipulate a person’s mind than it is their body. My mother has some bullshit explanation for this. She’s a Professor of Witchcraft, which means she has a bullshit explanation for most of life’s mysteries.

The main thread here is her attempt to reverse several love spells she has cast over the years leaving her with several unwanted suitors. On another level it is really about her getting her head sorted out.
I particularly enjoyed An Open Letter to the Person Who Took My Smoothie from the Break Room Fridge by Oliver Buckram. It comprises of an exchange of emails/memos between a handful of supervillains in the Alliance of Doom, starting thus:

TO: ALLIANCE OF DOOM
From: Professor Nemesis
Subject: An Open Letter to the Person Who Took My Smoothie from the Break Room Fridge

Dear Thief,
I don’t know who you are, but this morning you stole my homemade avocado smoothie from the fridge in the break room. Your behavior was unprofessional, dishonest, and deeply hurtful.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but it is NOT COOL to steal stuff from the break room. Not. Cool.

It has a neat ending as well.
Last One Out by K. B. Rylander is about an AI who is looking after an old lady in Sweden called Ella. She is trapped on an island after a virus has killed off most if not nearly all of the human race. As well as generally looking after her the AI tries to get around the restrictions that a robot controlled and maintained world has imposed, e.g. quarantine movement restrictions, no prescriptions without a doctor’s authorisation, etc., but has had little success for the last five thousand or so days. The AI is also fighting a losing battle in trying to understand the music Ella plays to it. The story details the AI’s further efforts to help Ella. This one gets off to a very good start but tails off a little at the end.
Killer by Bruce McAllister is a standalone sequel to Kingdom Come (Omni, February 1987) and is set in a world where angels and demons tumbled out of a shining doorway in Central Park and battled until only the angels were left. This tells of an encounter between a bounty hunter and one of the angels he has been hunting. Rather fragmentary.
Jesus Has Forgiven Me. Why Can’t You? by Betsy Phillips is an entertaining story about a woman who finds out that her wrestler boyfriend is married. After this discovery she goes to Jesus’s apartment and they become a wrestling team so they can teach him a lesson. This is mostly quite good but the ending isn’t as strong as the rest. It is also rather too obviously a life experience that has been turned into fiction (and is acknowledged as such in the introduction).

There is nothing particularly noteworthy in the non-fiction department this issue. There is a poem about growing crops on Mars from John Philip Johnson, book reviews by Charles de Lint and James Sallis, reviews by Kathy Maio of three promising films, 18 Cloverfield Lane, Eye in the Sky and Zootopia, a science column about the various forms of ice by Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty, an amusing Plumage from Pegasus column from Paul Di Filippo about writing graduates and their lack of real life experience, and a Curiosities column by Robert Eldridge reviewing Star of the Unborn by Franz Werfel (1946):

[Its] 645 pages of dense first-person narrative is studded with discursive asides and provocative epigrams. Its philosophical heft will enrich patient and adventurous readers.

It sounds promising but that is four magazines’ worth of reading. Coming Attractions trails a Special Author issue, the first since 2007, celebrating David Gerrold’s work.
Finally, another moan about the cover image4 used in the Kindle version. Once again there is mesh-like filter over the image, and I noticed something else this time around as well. In the upper left hand corner there appears to be a chip out of the corner and there is also a small crease above the green bar, just above the ‘on’ in ‘Fiction’. Surely they are not scanning a physical copy for the Kindle cover image? If so, that would account for the moiré effect on the image.

In conclusion, the longer fiction makes this a poorer quality issue than normal.

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  1. See also The Fall of Frenchy Steiner by Hilary Bailey, New Worlds #143.
  2. ‘Tales of Alaric the Minstrel’ at ISFDB.
  3. Yes, I know Mr Malzberg would have been 11 in 1950.
  4. The original unedited Kindle cover image with the areas referred to highlighted (note also what looks like the right hand edge of the physical copy):FSF20160708unedited

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