The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction #729, January-February 2017

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ISFDB link

Other reviews:
Kevin P. Hallett, Tangent Online
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
John Loyd, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Various, Goodreads

Fiction:
Vinegar and Cinnamon • short story by Nina Kiriki Hoffman ♥♥
The Regression Test • short story by Wole Talabi ♥♥
A Gathering on Gravity’s Shore • short story by Gregor Hartmann ♥♥♥
Homecoming • novella by Rachel Pollack ♥♥♥+
One Way • novelette by Rick Norwood ♥♥♥
On the Problem of Replacement Children: Prevention, Coping, and Other Practical Strategies • short story by Debbie Urbanski ♥♥♥+
Dunnage for the Soul • novelette by Robert Reed ♥♥♥
Alexandria • short story by Monica Byrne ♥♥♥
Wetherfell’s Reef Runics • short story by Marc Laidlaw ♥♥
There Used to Be Olive Trees • novelette by Rich Larson ♥♥♥

Non-fiction:
Vinegar and Cinnamon • cover by Charles Vess
Cartoons • by Bill Long, Arthur Masear
Books to Look For • by Charles de Lint
Books • by James Sallis
Brainless Robots Stroll the Beach • science essay by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty
Stranger (Yet Oddly Familiar) Things • TV review by Tim Pratt
Kingship • poem by Mary Soon Lee
Coming Attractions
Curiosities: A Voyage to Purilia, by Elmer Rice (1930) • essay by David Langford

Editor, C. C. Finlay

Vinegar and Cinnamon by Nina Kiriki Hoffman gets off to a good start:

The summer my little sister Maura was twelve and I was fourteen, she got fed up with me sniping at her for getting all the attention because she was a wizard and I wasn’t. She added Master of Transformation to her list of skills. It was market day, so Ma and Pa took the flatbed truck loaded with our farm’s wizard supplies into town. I finished my regular morning chores in the wereweed field and the dragon-brain barn and decided to head for an irrigation ditch. It had filled with the roots of an especially pernicious stingweed that had spread into a field of spellstarter. If I trimmed the roots in the ditch, it might kill the whole stingweed plant, and if it didn’t, I’d at least have cleared the ditch so water could get to the curse mustard downstream. p. 7

Maura is stung by a plant they are trying to clear from a ditch and in her rage turns the brother into a rat. The rest of the story is an interesting account of his new life as a rodent. The ending is rather too straightforward, and it reads like the first part of a longer work or series.
The Regression Test by Wole Talabi has an old woman doing a regression test on an AI to ensure it is still a reasonable copy of her mother. This is fine as far as it goes but the ending, which involves family shennanigans (the AI has authorised a grandson’s project), is a little unconvincing.
A Gathering on Gravity’s Shore by Gregor Hartmann is the third of a series of stories1 about a man called Franden, and this one is a future slice of life that has him go to an Upheld (elite) soirée on Zephyr. He is initially snubbed by the partygoers:

Eager to join the fun, Franden positioned himself on a path where a Fragrant Gate affinity would pass. Duvant was Fragrant Gate; maybe others in that domain would accept him. He selected a woman about his age who looked approachable and made eye contact. She checked him out visually, then pinged him with her oMo. When she looked at the screen, her face hardened. She must have signaled the others; despite his eye-catching uniform, the group promenaded past Franden as if he were a post holding a street sign.
He tried affinities in other domains. Deep Circle, Bright Rock—same result. Anyone who pinged him saw the profile in his oMo and placed him in a flash. An ordinary citizen? A nobody, to the lords of Zephyr.
Rattled, he sat on a bench near a tangle of twitching blue vines that dripped aromatic mucus.
He was irritated with himself for being vulnerable to snubs. After all, he was still the same person he’d been before he was invited to the party, right? But that and other rationalizations failed to cheer him up. He felt like crawling away with his tail between his legs. He couldn’t bail, though. He had a mission to complete. p. 39-40

Later on he meets an intriguing woman who he can’t identify (the cloud has subsequently been blocked by the party organisers due to a possible security problem) and their social and political banter form the rest of the narrative, with the woman turning out to be more significant than she appears.
There is no particular plot here, and it is obviously a part of a series, but the author does quite a good job ameliorating this in a number of ways: first, and most importantly, it is an engaging and vivid read and, as above, entertainingly reflects aspects of today’s society through a distorting lens; second, the backstory is skilfully inserted into the narrative making it a stand-alone piece; third, it ends in a way that closes a minor narrative arc. I’ll be digging out the first two stories.1
Homecoming by Rachel Pollack is another series story and the fourth story in her ‘Jack Shade’ series—Shade is a private investigator, occultist and shaman. In this tale he is approached by a woman called Carol Acker who feels that she is missing something but she can’t explain what. Shade subsequently decides to perform a soul retrival. . .
This process involves Shade appearing in three dream-scenes: the first is at a gay leather bar, the second at a chamber dance, and the third at a Jewish prayer meeting. In each he tries to fight his way through to a woman who is being held captive: the guards tell him in each instance that he doesn’t know what he is doing and that he should desist. He eventually succeeds in freeing her at the prayer meeting after an exchange with the ‘White Master.’
When Acker is reunited with what Shade believes is the missing part of her soul, she immobilises Jack and then leaves. There follows the brutal murder of the Acker’s cousin and his wife in which their bodies are ripped apart. Shades’ sometime girlfriend Carolien explains to him that he has released a primal being that has previously been responsible for a massacre in Holland in 1132. He then attempts to enlist the aid of various people and organisations to help him recapture what he has a freed.
The story of his attempts to do this are quite straightforward, as is the conclusion, but the reality that Jack inhabits is endlessly and inventively expanded as we go along. It all makes for a very detailed and entertaining description of a spirit world that encapsulates but goes far beyond our own. This section is from when he opens a flask he has obtained from a friend at Suleiman International, a supplier of djinns:

He unscrewed the top.
Jack had expected to see great swirls of smoke pour out, but instead he felt a twisting inside him, as if he himself were the one changed. His eyes stung, and he blinked, and when he opened them again, an Egyptian-looking businessman in a pinstripe suit and shiny black shoes, with slicked back hair and manicured hands, stood calmly before him. Slightly taller than Jack, the Djinni raised an eyebrow. “Nice place you have here. Do you know that Dr. Canton brings acolytes here for what he likes to pretend is sex magic?”
Jack just stared at him.
“What?” the Djinni said, “Did you expect a twenty-foot-tall fellow in a loin cloth with a booming laugh?”
Jack said, “Nah, that’s a great movie, but I’m no little Indian kid.” They looked at each other a moment, then Jack said, “So what happens now? You say you’re going to turn me inside out and set me on fire, and then I say I don’t believe you could ever fit inside that tiny flask—”
“No, no, we’ll just skip to the wishes. I might add, though, that we were never actually that stupid. The routine used to be part of the standard contract—let the clients think they’ve gotten the better of us—but in recent years, I’m happy to say, Suleiman International has modernized.”
“Glad to hear it,” Jack said. “Do you have a name?”
“Of course I do. Do you wish to know it?”
Jack laughed. “No thanks. I may not have done this before, but I know the rules. You’ll know when I use up any of my wishes. Three of them, right?”
The Djinni pressed his palms together before his heart and bowed his head. “Certainly, effendi.”
“How about I call you Archie?”
The Djinni smiled. “An honorable name.” p. 105-106

If the Rachael Pollack story above is the kind of story that could appear in Unknown if it was still being published, then One Way by Rick Norwood could equally appear in Astounding if . . . oh, wait. This is a hard SF story that tells of a professor who comes up with a theory for a force field that only lets matter pass through in one direction, and the young man who helps him turn it into reality. Just as the pair are on the cusp of worldwide fame (spoiler) Gold tinkers with their device and creates a sphere that starts falling through the Earth. . .
On the Problem of Replacement Children: Prevention, Coping, and Other Practical Strategies by Debbie Urbanski has an introduction that states that the author wrote this story after her child was diagnosed with autism. It looks at that event through the distorting prism of a world where normal children sometimes disappear and have their places taken by ‘replacement’ children.

The following morning, after the hair of the boy who slept in their son’s bed had turned completely silver and he began to speak an unrecognizable language, Clark admitted that Amber was right, this was no longer their child, and he asked to know more about what happened the previous night.
It had been Amber’s turn to watch over their son, and she had been watching over him, closely, until she remembered a bowl of cold cherries in the fridge. A sudden irrational longing for these cherries overtook her. It felt like something external had placed that longing in her and there was nothing she could do about it, other than to rush downstairs and grab a handful. She was gone for no more than two minutes. When she returned, she saw the candle had been blown out.
“Let me guess, you didn’t relight the candle right away?” Clark couldn’t help asking this in an accusatory tone, for every parent these days knows a child should not be left alone during a full moon, but if a child has to be left alone, at the very least the candle in the child’s bedroom must not go out. Clark was correct: Amber had not re-lit the candle right away. Instead she ate the cherries, threw the pits into the garbage bin in the corner, and then she walked over to their child’s bed to check on him. That was when she knew. p. 148

The rest of the piece takes the form of a Q and A leaflet for parents affected by this phenomenon. I could happily quote about a dozen of these sections but will limit myself to these two:

What is the role of the extended family, such as grandparents, in all this ?
The initial impulse of many grandparents may be to deny that anything has happened to their grandchild. In Case Study 292589, when Grandmother L. first saw her grandchild’s replacement during an autumn visit, she said, “Nonsense. This is still the same boy I know and love.” The child was running his fingers repeatedly over the suede fabric of the family’s couch.
“He refuses to take a bath,” the mother pointed out. “He hates the water. Remember how Brian used to love floating in the water? And his hair is silver, Mom.”
“Children change, dear,” the grandmother said. “God knows you changed so many times, and every time you changed, I certainly did not go around suggesting that a boogeyman had snatched you up.”
“It wasn’t a boogeyman. It was something else. I don’t know what it was. Something came into his room in the middle of the night. There was water around the windowsill. The window was open.”
“Rain,” the grandmother replied calmly. “Rain causes water to pool around a window.” She reached to hug the replacement, who ran, screaming, out of the room.
“Well, if that’s how you want to raise him,” said the grandmother.
Grandfather L. would not come into the house. “It’s not contagious,” the mother told him. “Whatever is it, you can’t catch it.”
The grandfather still would not come into the house.
p. 153-154

Case Study 400021
Freddy W., having always been the easygoing parent oblivious to bedtimes and vegetable-intake requirements, did not become obsessed, as many parents do, about where his actual child had gone. Instead, he took it upon himself to find a shared activity that he and the replacement child could enjoy together (this is a very good idea if a parent hopes to find their happiness again). It turned out that this replacement liked being tossed into the air in their backyard, as high as Freddy could throw him, so that his silvery hair flew around his head like wings. Although the replacement’s expression did not change, Freddy imagined he enjoyed it, as it was the only time the boy allowed anyone to touch him. “I miss our son, sure,” Freddy insisted to his wife, Dorothy, “but I’m trying to move past all that.” While Freddy was tossing the replacement into the air, Dorothy attended many support groups where she wrote down in a notebook any therapy that claimed to bring the original child back, assuming the original still existed.
p. 155-156

This is a very affecting and perceptive piece of writing and, given that it is more a piece of the writer’s soul than a story, I should probably leave it there. But (a) I think it could probably have benefited from having its slightly disorganized aspects more coherently arranged (e.g., the references to grandparents appear in a couple of different places) and (b) have been a little shorter. That said, it is an impressive piece and I will be surprised if we don’t see it again in the ‘Best Fantasy of the Year’ anthologies.
Dunnage for the Soul by Robert Reed is a story about a man who is tested by a researcher and finds that he has no soul or ‘PES’—permanent electronic signature. Subsequently it is discovered that 6% of humanity don’t have a PES. They are referred to as ‘dunnage,’ a term that currently refers to the loose disposable material used to keep a ship’s cargo in place.
The narrator’s life takes a downward turn when after the discovery is made public and his company find out and lay him off, but he later gets a job in a kennel where PES less dogs are euthanised. The veterinarian that works there later shows him a drug that can destroy a person’s PES, and the man then starts using it on people he knows. At the end (spoiler) he confronts the researcher who originally tested him—and who has three PESs or souls—but spares her, something I didn’t really understand.
I’m not sure this entirely works as a story but it has a dark intensity that is quite absorbing.
Alexandria by Monica Byrne is about a widow who builds a lighthouse hundreds of miles from the sea. The story of her relationship with her dead husband is interweaved with the story of its construction, and also various commentaries written about it in the future. This latter aspect not only makes it SF but gives the story a fitting final image.
Wetherfell’s Reef Runics by Marc Laidlawb is set in Hawaii and concerns the death by drowning of a man who believes that there are inscribed slabs on the nearby seabed:

This guy is a flake. Not that he didn’t sometimes grab a live wire. That’s what happens when you actively peel away reality’s insulation. He believes (believed? is he still alive?) [. . .] in an interconnected network of pictorial [nodes] for the global mind, [. . .] basically the intersection points of ley lines, sacred hotspots that had to be activated by meditating in their presence. Claimed (on dubious evidence) that certain ancients predicted climate catastrophe, rising sea levels, everything we’re seeing today, but unlike say Nostradamus they did something about it. The runes were somehow key to humanity’s survival. Unfortunately, for him, the runes tended over the ages to have wound up in dangerous or inaccessible places. He was booted out of Tibet for trying to climb onto the roof of the Potala. Nearly died in Burma/Myanmar—first of snakebite, then at the hands of the police. Exposure and dehydration almost took him in New Mexico. I can’t imagine the quality of meditation in any of those conditions could have been very good. p. 221

This is told from the point of view of a bookseller (Castaway Books) who lives on the island and who ends up being involved with the drowned man by virtue of a book that comes into his possession. This is told in with a light touch and has some good local colour as well as a spookily amusing ending. Unfortunately, none of this disguises a thin plot.
It feels like the start of a series (not least because editor C. C. Finlay says ‘After reading this story, we immediately hoped to visit Castaway again’) so we’ll see what future stories are like.
There Used to Be Olive Trees by Rich Larson is about an apprentice prophet called Valentin who leaves a walled town of the future for the dangerous wastelands outside when he fails for the third time to communicate with the machine God in the town’s autofab. He tells no-one of his departure and scales the wall aided by his nanoshadow, a wearable device which augments his strength and provides protection. Notwithstanding this, when he wakes for the first time on the other side of the wall he finds that a wilding has incarcerated his nanoshadow in a canvas bag. Pepe, the wilding, tells Valentin he will get it back if he comes to his village and communicates with the God in their auto fab so they can get the supplies they so desperately need.
The rest of the story sketches an intriguing and well-realised post-apocalypse scenario where machine ‘Gods’ rule the planet, as well as the developing relationship between Valentin and Pepe. The final scene advances this scenario with a major development but leaves the story quite open-ended. Yet another series starter.

As to the non-fiction, I wasn’t that keen on Vinegar and Cinnamon, the cover by Charles Vess. I didn’t dislike it but thought it an odd choice for the magazine. It is also the second cover in a row that is a watercolour that features cats—one too many, I think, and I say that as a cat person.
Books to Look For by Charles de Lint has its first three reviews covering series novels (again with the mid-series novel reviews): a ‘Sandman Slim’ volume from Richard Kadrey, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One & Two by Jack Thorne and John Tiffany and J. K. Rowling, and a ‘Henwick’s Bite Back’ novel by Mark Henwick. There then follows a review of Uncollected Anthology Issue 9: Fortune, which is apparently a novel form of anthology:

Rather than having the stories collected all under one cover as has been traditional with anthologies, they’ve each been simultaneously published as separate ebooks that share a collective theme. p. 57-58

Ah, not an anthology then. de Lint concludes:

All in all, it’s a strong anthology, but I’ll admit to having a few reservations about the delivery system. Having to order each story individually is a bit of a pain—not insurmountable, but you have to work at it a little.
Another issue is the $2.99 per story price tag. It doesn’t seem like much, but if you add it up, it comes to $17.94 for 206 pages of story, which isn’t really a bargain.
To be honest, if I was coming to this cold, I would probably have just bought the Rusch story because I know I’ll get my money’s worth and passed on the—to me—unknowns. But then I would have missed out on some other great stories. p. 60

This sounds like a rather daft publishing idea.
Books by James Sallis is a short but interesting and informative review of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin, a new biography of a sometime F&SF contributor Shirley Jackson.
Brainless Robots Stroll the Beach by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty announces:

With this column, we’re changing our format. Rather than publishing long columns just twice a year, we’ll be writing short columns for every issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. p. 187

This is the first one of a series on robots, and takes an interesting look at a robot called the Strandbeest.
I look forward to their more frequent appearance (an essay of theirs about the application of Special and General Relativity to GPS technology is one of the best science articles I think I have ever read: a great example of how rarefied physics theories impact on everyday technology).
Stranger (Yet Oddly Familiar) Things by Tim Pratt conveys his enthusiasm for the Netflix series Stranger Things:

Over the course of eight harrowing and exhilarating episodes, we’re treated to monsters, mad science, alternate realities, government conspiracies, loyalty, treachery, friendship, tragedy, sacrifice, and triumph. Stranger Things is full of great, pulpy storytelling stuff. It’s also very firmly eighties stuff, and the show is absolutely steeped in references to film and TV of that era. Stranger Things doesn’t so much wear its influences on its sleeve as wear a suit woven almost entirely of influences. The subtle and overt homages to the eighties work of Stephen King, John Carpenter, James Cameron, and Steven Spielberg (among others) permeate just about every frame. Spielberg’s E.T. is a major visual touchstone, the flashbacks to Eleven’s captivity in a government lab strongly reference the film version of King’s Firestarter, and the dynamic of the kids is very Stand By Me, but that just scratches the surface— p. 192-193

Since reading his review I’ve watched all the episodes and I enjoyed it more than the rest of the stuff that was waiting for me on the PVR. The influences weren’t quite so obvious to me (I watched the movies above a long time ago, and have forgotten most of the visual touchstones).
There is also a poem by Mary Soon Lee called Kingship, Cartoons by Bill Long and Arthur Masear, Coming Attractions and Curiosities: A Voyage to Purilia, by Elmer Rice (1930) by David Langford. This issue has the annual Circulation Statement which gives a print circulation of approximately 12,000 copies.
There is usually at least one spoof advertisement in the Classifieds every issue. This month’s is

Sought: Signed first editions of Lord Ravenscar’s Revenge . Will pay. No questions asked. Castaway Books, Tauai. p. 257

This refers to a book from the Marc Laidlaw story. I’m not sure I noticed whether previous ads were story related or not—I’ll keep an eye out in future issues.

There is a lot of solid work in this issue, and nothing I disliked. Because of its high quality and entertaining fiction, F&SF is my favourite magazine at the moment, just a nose (or maybe two) ahead of Asimov’s.

  1. The two previous Franden stories were The Man from X (F&SF, Jan/Feb 2015) and Into the Fiery Planet (F&SF, July/Aug 2015).

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