The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction #728, November/December 2016

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ISFDB link

Other reviews:
Bob Blough, Tangent Online
Steve Fahnestalk, Amazing Stories
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
David Loyd, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Patrick Mahon, SFcrowsnest
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Various, Goodreads

Fiction:
The Cat Bell • novelette by Esther M. Friesner ♥♥♥♥
The Farmboy • novelette by Albert E. Cowdrey ♥♥♥
Between Going and Staying • short story by Lilliam Rivera ♥♥♥
The Vindicator • novelette by Matthew Hughes ♥♥♥+
The Place of Bones • short story by Gardner Dozois ♥♥
Lord Elgin at the Acropolis • short story by Minsoo Kang ♥♥♥+
Special Collections • short story by Kurt Fawver ♥♥♥+
A Fine Balance • short story by Charlotte Ashley ♥♥♥
Passelande • novelette by Robert Reed ♥
The Rhythm Man • short story by James Beamon ♥♥
Merry Christmas from All of Us to All of You • short story by Sandra McDonald ♥♥♥+

Non-fiction:
The Cat Bell • cover by Kristen Kest
Cartoon • by Arthur Masear (3), Bill Long, Nick Downes (3), S. Harris, Bill Long
Books to Look For • by Charles de Lint
Books • by Chris Moriarty
Getting High • film review by David J. Skal
F&SF Competition #92: “Updated”
F&SF Competition #93: True Names
Coming Attractions (F&SF, November-December 2016) • essay by uncredited
Index to Volumes 130 & 131, January-December 2016
Curiosities: The Morlocks, by James C. Welsh, M.P. (1924) • review by Graham Andrews

Editor, C. C. Finlay

The Cat Bell by Esther M. Friesner gets the fiction off to a good start with what is the best piece in the issue, a story about a malevolent cook who works in a nineteenth century household. She has the unwanted task of feeding the master’s nineteen cats and, after tossing a stray tomcat who tries to join them into the bushes, dumps the job onto Ellen the under-cook. Ellen subsequently starts feeding the stray tomcat, who later talks to her and reveals that he is Puss in Boots.1 When he grants Ellen a wish she says she only wants the cook to be happier.
Later on, the cook is disciplined for unsuccessfully trying to incriminate Ellen in the supposed murder of Puss. The cook is sent away for two weeks and, while she is gone, every member of staff has the most amazing good fortune, courtesy of the cat’s wishes. When the scullery maid tells the cook about these events on her return she tries to get into Puss’s good graces.
There is a lot of entertainment in this one waiting for the cook get her long deserved comeuppance. This happens in a manner that I should have seen coming miles away—but didn’t.
The Farmboy by Albert E. Cowdrey is set on a colony planet where a survey team have landed and discovered, amongst other things, gold. A plot is started by the medical officer amongst a group of four crew members: they will leave the rest behind and use the available payload to take gold instead. The intense scheming that subsequently occurs makes it an engrossing read but there are a couple of weaknesses. First of all, three of the four characters in the group plot in a manner that would be worthy of Machiavelli himself—one or two I could believe, but three out of the four is just pushing it. Secondly, the ending (spoiler) is a brute physical one compared with what had hitherto been a cerebral game of cat and mouse. It is a good read nonetheless.
Between Going and Staying by Lilliam Rivera is about Dolores, who is a professional mourner/media star in the near future:

For this funeral service, Dolores selects The Selena™ kit and pairs it with sky-high stilettos. The kit comes with a thin silicone prosthetic bodysuit that covers her slender frame and a real-time face-tracking and internal-projection video mask to map the face of a twenty-year-old Latina over her own. Unlike the ridiculous rubber suits worn by other weepers, her kit is top of the line. This is the fourth funeral Dolores has worked this week, the second to be held in the Valley of the Tears Funeral Stadium.
“Again,” Dolores says to the Codigo5G. She greases her body with a special glue to provide suction and listens to the machine recite the bio once more:
“Client: José Antonio Ramirez de la Guarda. Born in Sinaloa, Mexico Discovered singing at his cousin’s quinceañera part. Lead vocalist of the narcocorrido band The Super Capos went solo with the single “When I See You I’ll Kill You”
Death listed as cardiovascular
Doliente Order: The Selena™
Location: Valley of the Tears Funeral Stadium
Fee: $35,990.33 dollars
Transport provided, arriving in 30 minutes and counting.”
“Cardiovascular? Yeah, right,” Dolores says to herself. She avoids the news but heard the real story on the deceased singer from her driver—the accordion player from his former group The Super Capos took him down. But such is the life. Dolores almost fired the driver for telling her. He knows now never to speak to her of such things.
p. 52-53

As she is on her way to the funeral engagement her mother calls to tell her to come home for the memorial service for her ex-lover Melody. A number of students and professors from her home town have been ‘disappeared.’
You have to respect the serious intent behind this work but it is an uneasy read with an ending that doesn’t provide any comfort.2
The Vindicator by Matthew Hughes is, we are told in the introduction, the seventh of the ‘Raffalon the Thief’ stories to appear in F&SF since 2012, and they are too be collected and published this year (2017). As with the previous Raffalon story I read, this piece is good quality light fantasy adventure. This one perhaps has more humour in it than the last, as shown by this passage where Raffalon tries to discover who has just tried to kill him by going to the Terrible and Tenacious Guild of Vindicators (the assassins guild):

A thin-shanked man in red and ocher clothing was in the act of locking the door. Raffalon accosted him and said, “Someone has just shot this at me.”
The man took the proffered dart, examined it briefly, and said, “Blown it, actually. It’s a puff dart.” He considered it a moment more then said, “Of course, at very close range it can be thrown from the hand, or even just poked into the recipient’s flesh.”
“Recipient?” Raffalon said.
“A Guild term,” said the man. “You would probably say ‘victim.’”
“What I would say is that I want to know who is trying to kill me.”
The man pulled a long and thoughtful nose and handed back the dart.
“Difficult,” he said. “Depends upon the nature of the contract. But I can tell you that confidentiality is usually a standard clause.”
“How do I make inquiries?”
“Begin by speaking with the duty officer.”
“I will do that now,” Raffalon said. “Open the door.”
The man signaled that such was beyond his power. “Until moments ago, the duty officer was me. Now my term has ended. Tomorrow a new vindicator will occupy the position, filled with a desire to serve. Come back and make your inquiries then.”
“But one of you people is trying to kill me! By tomorrow morning I may be stretched on a cold slab!”
The vindicator agreed that such might well be the case. Indeed, it was unusual for a Guild member to miss. “But, if it is any comfort, all I could do for you now would be to take an application for redress. The paperwork would then have to go to the Committee of Examiners, and they meet only on alternate Murthledays.”
Raffalon’s face expressed his shock. “This is a matter of life or death! I expect action, prompt if not immediate!”
The vindicator’s smile, though Raffalon did not know it, was an exact duplicate of the one he had so recently bestowed upon the nondescript whose goods had been lifted. “Your naiveté is refreshing,” he said. “I wonder that you have lived so long and retained such a large portion of it.”
The thief saw that there was no point in pursuing the issue. “So what can I do?” he said.
The man’s narrow shoulders climbed and fell. “Not much, I suppose. We are not called terrible and tenacious for nothing. Set your affairs in order. Prepare for a new experience.” He descended the steps, casting a look back at the thief and saying, “Or an old, familiar one, if the Reincarnationists are
correct.”
p. 96-98

Raffalon eventually enlists the services of a Discriminator called Cascor and (spoiler) they catch the would-be assassin. From there the story concerns a forged account about the death of a female thief. To establish the true events the three have to break into the archive of the guild of thieves, no small feat.
I have a minor niggle about this one that I hope the book editor manages to eliminate. This happens when Raffalon loses his temper with the young female assassin:

The thief made a sound that might have been a word in some harsh, barbaric tongue. No one would ever know, because he followed it with a stream of recognizable words and phrases in the common speech, though none of them were recommended to be used to assault the hearing of children.
Cascor put up a hand to stop him. It was not enough. Finally, as the spate of profanity continued, he gestured with one hand and spoke his own string of syllables. Abruptly, Raffalon’s coarse tirade ceased. His mouth opened and his lips and tongue still moved, but no sound came out
. p. 110

I can understand that the writer doesn’t want to insert bad language into a light fantasy story because it would be inappropriate in tone, but if we get the descriptive device above used once in the story we get it half a dozen times, and it becomes tiresome. Oh, and there are a couple of anachronistic [redacted]s in one of the documents they find in the library.
The Place of Bones by Gardner Dozois has a group of men, presumably in medieval times, cross the Alps by a particular route that leads them not to Italy but the Dragonlands:

From more than a mile away, we began to feel the heat that rises from that place, warming our fronts while our backs and ears remained chill—an odd sensation—and then we crested a low hill and beheld the most wondrous sight my eyes will ever behold: the Dragonlands.
Bones. The bones of dragons. A field of scattered bones, immense rib cages, titanic femurs and fibulas, that stretched out of eyeshot to the horizon in all directions save directly behind us. Near us, at the edge of the
field, was a skull the size of a wagon, with fangs longer than a man’s arm.

All the bones glowed a deep, muted red and radiated a sullen heat. It was if an immense explosion had gone off here, a shot from some cosmic bombard bursting, killing these creatures in the air and scattering their remains over the ground as far as the eye could see. A direct act of God, perhaps, smiting the dragons as He had once smitten Sodom and Gomorrah? If so, God’s wrath had not yet dissipated, for the bones still emanated the heat and smoky light of that divine anger many hundreds or thousands of years later; the townsfolk said that the field of bones had been here forever, unchanging, since the Beginning. p. 133

A perilous journey unfolds, resulting in (spoiler) desertion, starvation, death, and cannibalism. One member of the expedition escapes when he gives up and turns back.
This is promising and well-done but it goes nowhere. I wonder if it is the start of a longer piece, or part of a novel to come.
Lord Elgin at the Acropolis by Minsoo Kang starts with the director of an art museum making his daily viewing of one of the artworks on display and realising it is fake. However, all subsequent investigations and analyses prove the work genuine.
The story then cuts to a police inspector and his writer friend having a long, leisurely dinner and discussing the case. The inspector is convinced that the director is telling the truth and various theories are discussed that would explain the matter. These cover acquisitive aliens who want to remain undetected, time-travellers from the future saving artworks from an impending apocalypse, AI created virtual worlds, etc. Later on, the piece turns metafictional when it starts describing its own story:

“I’m trying to think of another way in which the director could have been sane and telling the truth. I mean, truth in the sense of something true about the nature of reality.”
“And?”
“The world we are living in is not real. It’s like a temporarily put-together environment created by a writer as a background for a story he wants to write, with enough details to create a sense of verisimilitude for the reader but no need for anything beyond that. For instance, the writer may throw in some detail about how we grew up together in the same small town. We are presented as people with complete pasts, a full sense of ourselves, but we are actually just empty constructs put together for the purpose of the narration. In this case, a narration that is almost entirely dialogue. The director is a construct as well, but one who caught a glimpse of the fictive nature of reality.
p. 148

It ends with the director considering that matter.
This is a clever, tricksy, entertaining and impressive piece, and I look forward to seeing more of this writer’s work.
Special Collections by Kurt Fawver is an intriguing and, at times, droll story about a library that has a strange—and lethal—Special Collections department that was location of a freak storm:

Were this the extent of the damage, the tornado of ’39 would have no reason to enter our legends, horrific tragedy though it may have been. But the three hundred and three students did not merely die. Their bodies were swept from the residence halls and shredded by swirling shrapnel, becoming part and parcel of the tornado. As it neared the still-underconstruction library—entirely exposed to the elements from the third floor up—the tornado evolved from mere weather phenomenon to infernal nightmare. A twisting, razor-toothed pillar of blood, flesh, and bone, it struck the unfinished edifice and deposited—no, more, embedded—the remains of the three hundred and three unfortunate students from the residence halls in the walls and floor of the third floor. Bone chips plunged deep into mortar. Organ fragments pasted themselves into the crenulations of brickwork. A glittering sheen of plasma varnished every surface that faced the tremendous wind. Newspapers of the day would vividly describe the scene as an “ivory tower abattoir.” p. 155

From then on, anyone who enters the Special Collections on their own disappears.
There is no real story here, just a description of various aspects of this enigmatic space, the repeated attempts made by solitary entrants to explore it, and an account of the perplexing White Books:

In 1985, June Takawa, an internationally renowned cryptologist, turned her sights upon the White Books and their mystery script. For two months, she studied the script’s insensible configurations and bizarre patterns, sometimes spending entire days feeding data into computer decryption programs of her own devising. As she scoured the books for meaning, she said she felt “increasingly convinced that the script represents something more complex than a written communique. The symbols—of which there are thirty-five distinct variations—are arranged in impossibly long and intricate palindromes, with each single volume reading exactly the same front to back or back to front.” Near the end of Takawa’s second month of research, she lamented that “the more time I spend with the books, the more they laugh at me, the more they run and hide their secrets. It’s as if they know I’m looking.” Her research came to an abrupt halt when she contracted an unknown disease that caused her to break out in a rash of massive, bright white blisters filled with an inky organic matter. Takawa was hospitalized for three weeks during her illness and, afterward, refused to return to Special Collections to continue her research, saying only that “the books are the mind of God, and I lack the courage to peer into that terrifying vista.” p. 161-162

At times this reminded me of the sort of story that you would occasionally find from Barrington J. Bayley or John Sladek in the Moorcock New Worlds:

A few nights prior to his entrance, he called for a group meeting and we obliged his request, unorthodox though it was. At the meeting, Fordyce submitted to us an idea so rudimentary, so obvious, that we could barely believe it hadn’t been tried in the long history of our recorded explorations. He asked, with soft tremolo underlying his voice, if we could leave the door open after he ventured inside. He said he’d read the record from cover to cover and, as far as he could tell, it had never been attempted. Those of us who spend great quantities of time with the record knew Fordyce was correct. We’d never kept the door open after an entrant had forged in alone. We’d never even discussed it, as far as we could tell. It was an oversight so flagrant it embarrassed us all.
Some of us flew into a rage over the idea and tried to defend our blindness. We upended tables and chairs and shouted that Fordyce had overstepped his bounds, that entering Special Collections simply wasn’t done that way, that an established division of inside and outside had to be preserved for our continued safety.
Some of us applauded Fordyce’s entreaty and cheered for the step in a bold new direction. We clapped one another on the back and, with determined grins and starry eyes, boomed that this was the dawn of a new era of exploration, that a propped open door might alter our entire perspective on the problem of Special Collections, that revelation was surely at hand.
p. 167

An unusual and enjoyable piece that, I suspect, will reward rereading.
A Fine Balance by Charlotte Ashley is an entertaining story about two female duellists who repeatedly fight to possess the other’s favour, which is then ransomed back to their clan. It has been some months since the two women have fought, unusually, when Yildrim’s apprentice Eminent spots her mistress’s nemesis, Kara Ramadami. However, on this occasion, events do not proceed along their traditional course. One of the clans has raised a militia in order to help Ramadani take Yildrim’s favour and thereby bankrupt the Olsen clan.
This has the feel of heroic fantasy/sword & sorcery but there are no supernatural elements.
Passelande is a long novelette by Robert Reed that is set in a near-future where people have ‘backups.’ The main character Lucas sometimes works as a private investigator for these digital entities. On his current assignment he visits a place called Passeland, which supplies farm goods in a future where those commodities are considerably more valuable than they are today. There he interacts with a couple called Alexis and Bracken:

Two cyclists are catching him on the uphill. As a rule, Lucas doesn’t remember names, particularly new names. But he knows this pair: Alexis and Bracken. Alexis sits forward on her seat, clipped-in shoes helping the electric motor do its work. She wears biking clothes and biking shoes, every stitch eating energy from her motions, ready to light up like a Christmas tree when night falls. Her telephone is frozen smoke set in front of her face. Her helmet was printed to fit her skull. She has a narrow skull and an almost pretty face, and her bike is beautiful, built from whisper-steel painted blue with gyros that hold its balance, and the one gear that acts like a hundred. Best of all, her tires are diamond wrapped around bubbles of vacuum. She can run over razor blades for a week and never needs a bike pump. p. 204

Lucas has cultivated this friendship at the behest of Alexis’s backup, who has discovered that Bracken’s backup is doing something immoral (although I’m not sure that this is ever revealed, or maybe I had just lost interest by that point).
There is a subplot concerning another backup who is trying to get Lucas to investigate the disappearance of her original, but that never seems to go anywhere.
This story never really got going for me. I wasn’t convinced by it, and I felt that it didn’t cohere into a believable story or world.
The Rhythm Man by James Beamon is about a blues player whose popularity has waned deciding to meet the supernatural Rhythm Man to ask for a favour. This was, I thought, a variant on all those bluesmen-meeting-the-Devil stories. As with them, your take on this one will partially depend on how interested you are in the blues and that milieu. It has a good last line.
Merry Christmas from All of Us to All of You by Sandra McDonald is a mordant Christmas tale about the graduating class of one of the high schools in Arctopolis, Santa’s manufacturing city-state at the North Pole. This is from the valedictory speech of one of the graduating high school pupils:

Up on the stage, valedictorian Ethan Snow takes the podium. His handsome profile splashes on the overhead screens, along with a list of outstanding academic and sports achievements. How can a young man like that have anything but a future bright? In a clear, inspiring voice he says, “Although the years to come will be full of challenges, I know each of us will succeed one hundred percent in our hopes, plans, and chosen careers.”
This is statistically impossible, but leadership is never about math.
“We must follow our dreams, leap into the unknown, make a difference, seize the day, and have faith.”
We might faint from the triteness, but we said these things at our graduations, too, back when we thought we had all the answers to all the problems.
Ethan pauses for dramatic effect. “Today is the first day of the rest of our lives!”
Possibly true, unless it’s the last day at the end of our lives. Just last week two workers met an unfortunate end when a pine needle machine exploded, and yesterday an associate was flattened in a sled-loading accident. Years ago Ruth Everpine’s husband got caught up in a ribbon turbine. She should have moved on by now, don’t you think?
p. 247-248

I’ve mentioned before that I think it’s a shame that so many Xmas stories are cynical and/or dystopian. Xmas is a fairly easy target for that kind of thing, whereas writing an uplifting piece that isn’t sentimental schmaltz is difficult. That said, it’s hard not to like this one, and it has an appropriately acidic final line that I’ll leave you to read for yourselves.

Kisten Kest’s Cover for Esther Friesner’s piece is more of a colour illustration than a colour cover, if you catch my drift, but I like it: it suits the magazine and also the story. There are the usual selection of Cartoons by various artists and the usual bits and pieces, such as a Curiosities review by Graham Andrews, and the results of F&SF Competition #92: “Updated” plus the start of F&SF Competition #93: True Names.
As it is the end of the year issue there is the Index to Volumes 130 & 131, January-December 2016.
Books to Look For by Charles de Lint includes a review of the third novel in Stephen King’s recent mystery/thriller trilogy, End of Watch (there are some SFnal elements this time around). He also reviews Out There by long time F&SF contributor Gahan Wilson, a book of cartoons, covers, reviews and stories.
There is also this about unpleasant antagonists:

As a kid, I liked the horror movies with monsters in them. Werewolves, Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the giant ants in Them. What I didn’t like was psychological horror, because supernatural creatures [. . .] are obviously fictional, but sociopaths are real and could be living next door.
They were genuinely scary and a reminder of how mean and twisted the world we live in can be.
Strip away the preternatural aspects of Brady Hartsfield and you have a bitter, mean-spirited man, of which there are far too many in the real world.

I’m probably the one person in North America who didn’t watch, and has no intention of watching, Breaking Bad. I don’t have the inclination or time for that kind of story. p. 73-74

Each to their own, but I think this wildly mischaracterises and underestimates Walter White, the anti-hero of that series.
Books by Chris Moriarty reviews Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, and The Martian by Andy Weir. These are all novels of planetary exploration if I recall correctly.
The description he gives of the Robinson novel does not make it sound appealing, especially so when he concludes with a short discussion about the arc of the book, which is that (spoiler) of a failed expedition to an extrasolar planet and its return to Earth. A 480 pp. book that ends in unsuccessful round trip? I don’t think I’ll be picking up that one. And there was me thinking that John Brunner was pushing his luck with Total Eclipse (at half the length of Aurora).3
The final review column is Getting High by David J. Skal which, for a change, reviews a film I’ve actually seen (High Rise) and adds a few points of interest.

This is a very good issue.

  1. Coincidentally, I just took in a stray tomcat (Troy, aged 8), which is why there has been such a gap between reviews. I haven’t received any wishes from him but do get very vocal complaints about the food and quantity thereof.
  2. When I was younger I was particularly keen on the music of Bruce Springsteen and that interest led to me acquiring various solo projects by his fellow E-Street Band members. One of these was Steve Van Zandt, who subsequently played Silvio Dante in the TV series The Sopranos. His second album, Voice of America, has a track called Los Desaparecidos. From Wikipedia: ‘Los Desaparecidos gained praise as an effective protest song on behalf of the 1970s and 1980s victims of state-sponsored forced disappearance in South America.’ It is rather depressing that a similar sort of thing is still going on thirty odd years later.
  3. In Total Eclipse, if I recall correctly, the crew go to an alien planet and attempt to solve a mystery but in the final part (spoiler) they all develop a fungal infection of the lungs and die. End of story. Just because this kind of event is possible doesn’t mean it makes a good plot for a novel.

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