Steve Fahnestalk, Amazing Stories
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
David Loyd, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Clancy Weeks, Tangent Online
Talking to Dead People • short story by Sarah Pinsker ♥♥♥
The Green-Eyed Boy • short story by Peter S. Beagle ♥
The Voice in the Cornfield, the Word Made Flesh • short story by Desirina Boskovich ♥♥♥+
A Melancholy Apparition • short story by Ian Creasey ♥♥
The Further Adventures of Mr. Costello • novella by David Gerrold ♥♥♥+
The Dunsmuir Horror • novella by David Gerrold ♥
Anything for You • short story by Lisa Mason ♥♥
Those Shadows Laugh • novelette by Geoff Ryman ♥♥♥+
Cupid’s Compass • short story by Leah Cypess ♥♥♥
The Sweet Warm Earth • short story by Steven Popkes ♥♥
Cover • David Hardy
Cartoons • Arthur Masear, S. Harris, Danny Shanahan
Editorial • by C. C. Finlay
Books to Look For • by Charles de Lint
Musing on Books • by Michelle West
The Amazing Mr. Gerrold • essay by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
My Life in Science Fiction • essay by David Gerrold
The Dragon • poem by Aimee Ogden
Animal Husbandry • film review by Kathi Maio
Curiosities: The Adventures of Hatim Tai, by Anonymous (1830) • essay by Robert Eldridge
This is a special issue—the first that F&SF has published for some time—featuring David Gerrold.1 I’ll deal with the other fiction first before I move onto that part of the issue.
Talking to Dead People by Sarah Pinsker is about two university students who start building ‘murder houses.’ These are models of crime-scene houses with an AI chip so that one can cross-examine the persons involved in and around the crime. Eliza is the brains behind the idea, and Gwen ends up as an employee building the houses. They are a big success and in some cases the AIs are able to make intuitive leaps that progress the sometimes stalled investigations.
The relationship between the two students breaks down when the Eliza gives Gwen a model of her own house for a Xmas present. Gwen’s younger brother went missing while she was a child.
The ending wasn’t what I expected—I thought the disappearance was going to be solved—and I felt slightly short-changed. It works in its own way, however.
The Green-Eyed Boy by Peter S. Beagle is a prequel to his novel The Last Unicorn. It is told by an old wizard to a third party and tells of a youth called Schmedrick being apprenticed and not doing particularly well before he goes on to be famous. These anecdotes are not particularly engaging and at the end it just stops; this reads more like an extract than a story.
The Voice in the Cornfield, the Word Made Flesh by Desirina Boskovich initially starts with an alien crash-landing on Earth. It makes an attempt to mentally contact a young girl, but this overwhelms and kills her.
The story then moves to two of the women in the Mennonite community the girl lives in. One is newly married and pregnant, the other already has a young family and is struggling with both them and an abusive husband. Parts of this have echoes of Leigh Brackett (the Mennonite community) and Zenna Henderson (the rural setting):
The creature oozes and drifts to a small stand of maples, and feathers its mind on the breeze, sending out signals of distress. But its psychic overtures are met with silence. Help? Help me? Nothing.
Then, reaching out, reaching back, the tiny curiosity of tiny minds: a mole, tunneling beneath. A garter snake, slithering. A family of mice, scampering. A passing parade of insects.
All small of ambition, small of stature, small of mind.
The creature accepts their sympathy as gently as it can, knowing they cannot understand, knowing they will not help.
This is more of an autobiographical story than an SF one—the alien element isn’t really central—but is a compelling read for all that. Although there is a positive ending of sorts it is rather overwhelmed by the bleakness that precedes it.
A Melancholy Apparition by Ian Creasey is a story set in the 18th century and narrated by James Boswell about his and the renowned Dr Samuel Johnson’s visit to a family in the north. While dining there they learn that the owner has been seeing apparitions of his recently deceased daughter.
This has a very good period setting but as a ghost story it fizzles out at the end to become more a story of the personal deficiencies of the owner and Boswell himself. I hope the author writes about these characters again, perhaps married to a more satisfying story.2
Anything for You by Lisa Mason is a darkish satire about a man addicted to an interactive TV series and infatuated with its star character, the surgeon Dr Viginia Isley. He is obsessed with her to the point of his marriage breaking down around him. This is enjoyable but too open-ended for me; either that or I missed the point. There is one passage from the couple’s marriage counselling sessions I noted:
“Some think fiction is truer than life,” the counselor says, trying to catch his eye.
“How can that be?” his wife says, skeptical now as well as annoyed.
“Well, because narrative structure is an essential need of the human mind. A way of making sense of the mess of real experience. A pedagogical device, too, because the stringencies of a plot presented by a story force us to see meaning in what would otherwise be chaos.”
Those Shadows Laugh by Geoff Ryman is the sole novelette in the issue. This is an original story about a parallel world that has an island/continent of women who reproduce pathenogenically. The story is narrated by a female scientist who is there to do some gene-splicing that will improve their genetic health: the numbers of birth defects among their children has been rising steadily as they have only five matrilineal lines.
The general form of the story is that of an outsider failing to understand or appreciate a markedly different society, in that the female scientist becomes infatuated with one of the natives and subsequently seduces her. This process and the aftermath allows Ryman to use this novel and unusual society to hold up a mirror to ‘normal’ human traits such as sexual desire, possession and self-deception.
Although I found it a little hard to get into the story (the first few pages in particular seem a little stilted) it really grew on me and, by the end, I found it quite fascinating. One we’ll be seeing in the ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies, I suspect.
Cupid’s Compass by Leah Cypess is an amusing Sheckleyesque satire about two people who become a couple as a result of a new neurological technique for inducing love in complete strangers. In due course they get married and have a kid but then problems arise. There are a number of quite funny passages in this one, such as when the CEO of the company offering this process is talking to the woman and her friend about the payment plan:
“We are trying to get it covered by insurance. Statistically, married people tend to live longer and experience fewer health problems, so we have a good case.” Larissa sighed and propped her chin up with one hand. “Unfortunately, we’re constantly blocked by the online dating lobby.”
“Being single isn’t a disease,” Julie snapped, against her better judgment. Mindy had driven her to Cupid’s Compass, and that half-hour car ride had exhausted her tolerance for being pitied. “It’s this unhealthy obsession with another person that’s a disease. And the fact that our society worships that disease is just…uh…” At that point, her eloquence failed her. “Another disease.”
Or when the CEO describes how the process works:
Larissa cleared her throat. “You and your future soul mate will be fitted with helmets that produce a rotating magnetic field over the temporal lobes of your brains. When you meet each other, our techs will turn the helmets on, and a particular frequency and pattern of the field will be generated that will induce deep feelings of attraction, caring, and a sense that you are incomplete without each other. It usually takes only a few minutes, and studies have shown no negative side effects except for passing feelings of nausea and a few days of insomnia.”
The Sweet Warm Earth by Steven Popkes is an early-1960s mob enforcer story into which is dropped an elderly Italian man who would seem to be a horse whisperer. There are subsequent family/mob problems but this effort turns out to be more a slice-of-life period piece than a story.
David Gerrold contributes two stories to this special issue, the first of which is The Further Adventures of Mr. Costello. This novella starts by establishing the narrator in his multiple marriage group on Haven, a planet that has an independent-minded type of settler and a strange ecosystem. The latter involves a plant called the glitter-bush which produces a crop that is part honey and part seed, and the horgs, an aggressive and dangerous herd creature which eat the plants:
Horgs are . . . well, they’re big, they’re ugly, they smell bad, and they’re meaner than anything else on the planet, even humans, especially when they’re in rut. Horgs have only one sex—they don’t mate, they fight until exhausted. Or dead. The winner stabs the loser with a spiked penis. The sperm make their way through the bloodstream to the egg sac, where a litter of little horgs gets started.
Sometimes the brood-horg survives, sometimes it doesn’t. Horgs aren’t choosy, sometimes they poke other things—even humans. When they do that, when there’s no eggs available, the sperm self-fertilizes, turns into mini-horgs, and the litter eat their way out. Not pretty. You get a couple hundred rat-sized critters. The big horgs eat ‘em. And if it’s a horg with ripe eggs, they get fertilized that way. Crazy biology, but it works.
Some people think Horg meat is a delicacy. I’m not one of them.
Some people say that if horg meat is fixed right, it’s delicious. They can have my share. I’ve seen what an angry horg can do. And a horny one.
Matters develop when an off-worlder called Mr Costello arrives and announces he wants to start exporting horg meat. As everyone who has previously attempted this is in Idjit’s Field, the local graveyard, the locals are only too glad to take his money. The rest of the story is how Mr Costello not only succeeds but ends up in charge of a soon to be transformed planet, much to the concern of the locals.
This is an entertaining, colourful and well developed tale but I have a couple of caveats, one minor and one major.
The minor one is that there is frequent reference to gender swapping in the families, and the impact on internal family relationships. I realise that this theme is present in some recent fiction due to the current prominence of transgender politics but can I just note, as a disinterested observer, that John Varley was doing this in his fiction back when I started reading SF magazines in 1976. It is beginning to feel quite old, not to say unimaginative. If people have the ability to easily transform their bodies in the future I don’t think they are going to stop at switching between male and female.
The major criticism I have is a theological one and won’t affect any casual reader’s appreciation of the story, so move along, nothing to see here, etc. In this story Gerrold has borrowed, with the estate’s permission, the protagonist of Theodore Sturgeon’s Mr Costello, Hero (Galaxy, December 1953). That story dealt with the scourge of McCarthyism and addressed two issues. The first was McCarthy’s technique of using fear to divide and then rule over people; the second was the culpability of the people who let themselves be used in this way and/or idolised people like McCarthy.
This is a far cry from what happens in Gerrold’s story. His Costello is more of a Machiavelli or a manipulator than someone who uses fear to divide and rule. Also, as the penultimate scene demonstrates (spoiler), one of the settlers ultimately refuses to be complicit in what he is planning. I know this may seem a pettifogging criticism but I read the Sturgeon story directly before this one and the differences are striking. I don’t really think there was any need to co-opt Sturgeon’s character for this story.
Gerrold’s second contribution, The Dunsmuir Horror, is a novella in the same series of autobiographically based stories as last issue’s dire The Thing on the Shelf (F&SF, July-August 2106). I didn’t think this one was quite as bad but I may still be numb from the last. Once again Gerrold witters on endlessly while not much happens:
Let me get philosophical here. Philip K. Dick—I met him once, a very strange man, he kicked me—is alleged to have said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Actually, I don’t think he was quite that precise. I think he said something more like, “Reality is all the stuff that doesn’t go away when I do.”
The problem with any discussion of reality is that we, as human beings, are ill-equipped to experience, perceive, or even discuss reality. We like to think we understand reality—we certainly talk about it as if we know what it is—but in truth, we are as removed from reality as if we were tattooed by Lewis Carroll on the naked belly of an LSD-infused dormouse. And that’s on a good day. Even the best of the zen masters musing on the nature of human consciousness are in denial about how much denial we’re in.
We exist. How do we know we exist? We argue about existence. Endlessly. We are talking goo talking about what it means to be talking goo. We are goo, therefore we are.
The ever so slight plot concerns him leaving the freeway (after many, many pages of the above) and driving through a town at night. A town that subsequently turns out not to exist. This well used and ancient plot device4 is given a couple more twists, one linked and the other a bolt-on: (spoiler) the doctors at Gerrold’s asylum footnote his letter to Gordon Van Gelder with the suggestion that they add a few more fiction producing ‘assets.’
There are one or two interesting jokes/anecdotes in this but not enough to hang a novella on.
There are also several non-fiction contributions to the special issue. The Cover by David Hardy shows Gerrold surrounded by a montage of various items including the starship Enterprise, tribbles and a horg amongst other things.
The Editorial by C. C. Finlay provides a short introduction to the issue and is followed by a longer essay on Gerrold by Kristine Katherine Rusch, The Amazing Mr. Gerrold. As in Finlay’s piece it does a quick tour of, amongst other things, The Trouble with Tribbles, Star Trek and The Martian Child (F&SF, September 1994). Admittedly the latter was a Hugo and Nebula winning story but I didn’t really get a sense of what exactly was so special about Gerrold’s fiction from the article.5
There is a short essay by Gerrold himself, My Life in Science Fiction. This starts promisingly with some interesting stuff about his childhood but unfortunately degenerates into a lot of gosh-wow about SF and the people who write it.
As for the rest of the non-fiction, the book review columns are beginning to strike me as the weakest part of the magazine. In his Books to Look For column Charles de Lint reviews five books. The first review is a useful one about Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. However, this is followed by a comic book, Crescent City Magick: Welcome to New Orleans by Michael L. Peters, and then by a book on the paranormal, Real Visitors, Voices from Beyond, and Parallel Dimensions by Brad Steiger and Sherry Hansen Steiger. This review has these comments:
Kefa opens with a brief description of his interest in the connectedness of disparate paranormal phenomena and his conversion to Islam where he discovered to his surprise—and certainly to mine, as well—that followers of his new faith are expected to believe in Ghraib, which is Arabic for “Unseen World.”
He goes on to explain how his “newfound faith not only accepted the existence of the supernatural and an invisible realm beyond our senses but essentially made belief in them an article of faith. Furthermore, I found that there is within Islam a subcultural element of belief and/or research into the Unseen World that has a history stretching back to the dawn of human existence.”
In my years of reading fantasy I’ve come across many writers who postulate fictional connections between all of the supernatural elements of the world, making tidy sense of what seems to be pretty much unknowable. So it was especially intriguing to me to read an explanation that is an accepted part of the belief system of some twenty-two percent of the world’s population.
That’s a lot of people.
Good grief, I thought I’d picked up a copy of F&SF, not The Magazine of Superstition and the Irrational.
The next review is an anthology, Not Just Rockets and Robots: Daily Science Fiction Year One by Jonathan Laden and Michele-Lee Barasso. De Lint helpfully tells us we don’t see more anthology reviews from him as:
When it comes to collections and anthologies, I read in fits and starts. I like to take the time to think about the stories, so I don’t read too many in a day, and rarely two in a row. It’s the reason you see so few reviews of anthologies in this column. I just take too long to read them.
No problem: I doubt the readers of F&SF might want to read, say, a group review of all the year’s ‘Best’ anthologies with associated commentary about the year in short fiction, not when there are comic and paranormal books to consider (or, in the case of the last two reviews, a YA book published in 2010 and the second book in a Whitley Streiber series, first published in 2014).
What on Earth is going on here? De Lint has six of the twelve review columns that F&SF runs in a year: is this really an appropriate selection of books to cover? Has the magazine got a coherent review strategy?
I had hoped that Musing on Books by Michelle West would be better but her column is probably worse than de Lint’s. The second review provides an overlong, rambling and useless synopsis of the book under consideration:
Pierce heads toward Severluna, where King Arden and his knights live. On the way, he meets Carrie. Carrie, like Pierce, is young; unlike Pierce, she’s known both her parents all her life. Like Pierce, her parents are no longer together; unlike Pierce, her yearning and frustration and sense of entrapment are turned inward, always inward. Carrie lives in the town closest to Pierce’s old home, and she works—as Pierce did—in a restaurant. The restaurant, in the Kingfisher Inn, isn’t owned by her mother, and her mother is not a sorceress of astonishing power. She’s a woman who got good and tired of living with Merle, and took off to distant parts.
Carrie lives with Merle, her father. And she is surrounded, always, by Merle’s friends, and by the makeshift family one builds when one works and lives in close quarters. Aunt Lilith, who lives upstairs; Hal, who doesn’t live with Aunt Lilith, although they’re married. She lives in the shadow of Stillwater, another cook in town, whose restaurant is famous. She has spent her entire life asking questions, and no one will answer them, and she is tired of being kept in the dark.
Daimon is the last of the three. Like Pierce, he has spent his life without one parent; unlike Pierce, that parent was his mother. He is the bastard son of King Arden—fetched, at the demand of the Queen, when his existence became known upon the death in childbirth of his mother, and brought to court, where he was raised with his half-brothers and sisters as if he were in truth a royal sibling. The Queen is not his mother, and the Queen was not particularly happy to find this evidence of her husband’s infidelity—but she has been a mother to Daimon for all his life, and if there was ugliness about his existence, Daimon has never been blamed by her for it.
And that’s only the middle part of it. The last review of the three is better but she inserts herself into this one to an extent that exceeds my interest (she would want to ‘spend time’ with one of the book’s characters, who is ‘someone I’d want in my life.’ She is ‘not particularly religious’ but ‘wants to be happy’. Ugh.)6
In case anyone thinks I’ve become terminally dyspeptic I offer Animal Husbandry by Kathi Maio in my defence. This is a good film review column that uses Fatal Attraction as a lead in to discuss The Lobster. Contrast and compare this column with the book reviews: it has appropriate content, a concise and informative synopsis, and lucid insight. It also made me go and watch the film.
The rest of the non-fiction includes the Cartoons, which are provided by Arthur Masear, S. Harris and Danny Shanahan, a poem called The Dragon by Aimee Ogden, Coming Attractions, and Curiosities: The Adventures of Hatim Tai, by Anonymous (1830) by Robert Eldridge.
A mixed bag this issue, with the special issue aspects—bar the first story—rather underwhelming.
- Some of the F&SF special issues covers are here.
- Iain Creasy’s blog post about this story.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel, Herland, is mentioned in the introduction to the Ryman story and obliquely in the story.
- For disappearing spooky towns see Twister by Mary Elizabeth Counselman in Weird Tales (January 1940). Which makes the idea at least 76 years old.
- Gerrold’s entry at SFE doesn’t exactly sing his praises either.
- I am not oblivious to the fact there are personal aspects to some of my posts but those are generally in the footnotes. Also, there is a big difference between an amateur blog covering magazines old and new, and a professional magazine review of currently published material.