Galactic Central link
Editor, C. C. Finlay
A Thousand Deaths Through Flesh and Stone ● short story by Brian Trent ♥♥♥
Witch’s Hour ● novelette by Shannon Connor Winward ♥♥♥
Dirty Old Town ● novelette by Richard Bowes ♥♥♥+
The Prognosticant ● novelette by Matthew Hughes ♥♥♥
The History of the Invasion Told in Five Dogs ● short story by Kelly Jennings ♥♥♥
What the Hands Know ● short story by Gregor Hartmann ♥♥♥
The Woman with the Long Black Hair ● short story by Zach Shephard ♥♥
My English Name ● novelette by R. S. Benedict ♥♥♥♥
The First Day of Someone Else’s Life ● short story by John Schoffstall ♥♥
Neko Brushes ● short story by Leah Cypess ♥
Ring ● short story by Nina Kiriki Hoffman ♥♥
The Prognosticant ● cover by Maurizio Manzieri
Cartoons ● by Bill Long, Arthur Masear and Nick Downes
The Path of Peace ● poem by Mary Soon Lee
Books to Look For ● Charles De Lint
Books ● Elizabeth Hand
Plumage from Pegasus: Happiness in a Worn Gunn ● humour by Paul di Filippo
Robots on the Road ● science essay by Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Western Histories ● film review by David J. Skal
F&SF Competition #93 & 94
Curiosities ● book review by Mark Esping
There are (at least) three series stories in this issue of F&SF and, depending on readers’ attitude to this category of fiction and the series in question, that will either be a good thing or a bad one. Even if one’s attitude is broadly positive, like mine, there always seems to be a tension between (a) meeting these old friends again and (b) the sometimes fragmentary nature of the tales on offer. We’ll see to what extent this affects the following contributions.
Taking the series stories in the order they appear, the first is The Prognosticant by Matthew Hughes. This is an ‘Archronate Universe’ story, and the second episode featuring Baldemar following his introduction last issue. It has an engrossing start:
Baldemar knew something was wrong when he heard the got-you-now muttering to itself. Of course, the predatory tree could not actually speak, neither to itself nor to any other creature. But whenever it had sprung at something and failed to catch it, its barb-thorned twiglets would chafe against each other as they returned to coiled-up readiness. That sound was not audible when the tree succeeded in catching prey; the rubbing of twigs was drowned out by the noises that its victims made while it was feeding. p. 103
This is another readable tale that goes on to tell how Baldemar catches a young thief called Raffalon (the character of a previous F&SF ‘Archronate’ series) reconnoitring his master’s property at the dead of night. Later, Baldemar is sent by the wizard that employs him (along with Oldo, his supervisor) to recover a helmet called The Helm of Sagacity. This section, with platform-bearing imps, a near-lethal guardian, and omnipotent Helm, is inventive and absorbing stuff but the ending peters out somewhat.
I note in passing that we are given a hint that the series may be science fantasy rather than straight fantasy:
The skintight suit that bent light around itself was a relic of a bygone aeon when, according to legend, magic had been unreliable and people had to invent machines that could do what spells and cantrips could not. p.106
The second of the series stories is a follow-up to Gregor Hartman’s A Gathering on Gravity’s Shore in the January-February issue. His fourth ‘Franden’ story, What the Hands Know, has him at an off-world fight club where, after an initial scene-setting bout, two miners challenge their Cold Arrow employers. One of the latter turns out to be the nephew of Franden’s Upheld (planetary elite) friend Maya and, when she spots this on social media, she implores Franden to help protect the nephew by joining him in the ring as his fight partner—at least until she can work out another way of stopping the contest.
This could probably be set in the present day as nearly everything (well, maybe not the skarmour—active body armour) has a present day analogue, up to and including the way the fight is ultimately illuminated by the light of the spectators iPhones, sorry, oMos. As with the story above, it also peters out a little at the end. Nonetheless, it is a pretty good read for all that, and I really must go back and dig out the first two stories.
I’m assuming that Ring by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, the last story in the issue, is also a series story, this being the first episode. It starts on a train on an alien planet with a woman called Aris who is accompanied by a man called Firen. He wears a ring that Aris controls, and it materialises she has just bought him at the slave market in the city. This first part of the story, the journey back to Aris’s home, is quite slow moving if intriguing as a strange male-slave/sexual partner owning society is sketched out. It picks up pace on arrival at their destination, where they are met by Aris’s mother, who insists they go to the temple to have their union consecrated. After the ceremony (conducted by deeply buried and long-forgotten planetary tech) is complete two things occur: the first is that circular marks appear on the couple’s hands; the second is that Firen regains the power of speech and tells Aris and her mother that he did not lose ownership of himself in the casinos, but was speech-locked and removed from the ship where he was a first officer attempting to remediate a dysfunctional crew.
Even though I enjoyed this one it is even more open-ended than the two above, too much so in fact. In this case I think it would have been better to ask the writer to use this as the beginning of a longer novelette or novella with more significant development in it. I would also add that, given its open-ended nature, it is not really a story to end an issue with.
At the start of this column I mentioned the possibility of fragmentary episodes with series stories: I would say that in F&SF, C. C. Finlay makes a reasonably good job of making sure that they are self-contained, more so than you usually find. I hope he manages to keep it up as these series get longer and the readers more involved….
The other stories include A Thousand Deaths Through Flesh and Stone by Brian Trent. This is about a soldier from the Martian Order of Stone sent to the Moon to assassinate a Partisan war criminal called Sabrina. She is responsible for, among other things, a nuclear attack on Mars. What complicates this straightforward storyline is that a saved version of the soldier has been downloaded into a new body on the Moon, one with several combat enhancements (a ‘blurmod’ is similar to the combat wiring that Gully Foyle used to speed up his physical functions in Alfred Bester’s Tiger! Tiger!). This new body meets another version of himself who has been downloaded several days earlier into a slightly different and modified body type. Together they get on the train to kill the four copies of Sabrina they are tracking. Much mayhem ensues.
I had one existential reservation about the storyline, which is that if you can download people into new bodies then trying to kill a particular person can rapidly degenerate into a game of whack-a-mole. That minor observation notwithstanding, the story is an entertaining, fast-paced piece, albeit one that ends pretty much as you would expect it to.
Witch’s Hour by Shannon Connor Winward concerns Esmerelda, who works in a castle as what would seem to be a witch-cum-cook, given her magical use of special spices and herbs in cooking. She has previously used these talents to poison the previous occupant of that job, a man who raped and abused her. However, she is now haunted by his ghost, and he/it is increasingly able to manifest as a physical force, and is continuing the abuse. It is against this backdrop that the new king commands her to prepare a meal that will impress a visiting duke. Esmerelda, after the ghost then destroys her stock of spices and herbs, has to go to the Wanderers for replacement stock. She reveals herself as one of them and asks an elderwoman for information that will help her exorcise the ghost.
This is well enough told and developed, but it is a fairly dark story on the way through tending to pitch black at the end.
Another fantasy novelette, albeit more of a borderline case than the previous story, is the elegiac Dirty Old Town by Richard Bowes, which is narrated by a writer who has some magical ability. However, the core of the story isn’t about the magic elements of his life but his relationship with a childhood ‘friend,’ Ed Mackey, an actor who has had some success as a TV and film star. Their tale takes them from their childhood together in a tough area of South Boston to the present day, and the narrative, which doesn’t easily lend itself to synopsis (it is a mosaic of many scenes and anecdotes), moves back and forth from its immersive account of those early days in Boston to the relationship that develops between the two men in later life. The second-best story in the issue.
The History of the Invasion Told in Five Dogs by Kelly Jennings is a post-alien invasion dystopia told through the device of five dogs from the narrator’s life. I liked this short, grim and absorbing story.
The Woman with the Long Black Hair by Zach Shephard is a short fable (or as the introduction says, sigh, ‘flash fiction’) about a black haired woman called Korlova who asks various people about herself. The ones who have bad things to say about her are rewarded…
The standout story of the issue for me was My English Name by R. S. Benedict. This is an impressive debut that starts with a diminutive Chinese woman entering a room and changing into, or adopting the external form of, an Englishman in China called Thomas Major. The rest of the story follows this man/creature as he becomes a TEFL (foreign language) teacher, and of the local Chinese man he later becomes friendly with. While the focus of the piece is on the aspirations of this creature for a relationship with another being—this is perhaps meant as a more universal metaphor—there are various visceral flashes of how alien he/it is throughout. Thomas avoids physical contact as he/it cannot take the risk of exposing the artificiality of his/its carapace, or the damage that may ensue.
I have no trouble with chopsticks. But putting food in my mouth, chewing it, and swallowing it are not actions that come naturally to me. This tongue of mine does not have working taste buds. My teeth are not especially secure in their gums, having been inserted one by one with a few taps of a hammer. This stomach of mine is only a synthetic sack that dangles in the recesses of my body. It has no exit. It leads nowhere. p. 174
What I also found interesting in this piece was the description of the rather dissolute expat/foreign language community in China, and how Thomas’s status as a foreigner mirrors his experience of trying to fit into wider human society.
Our train plunges deeper and deeper into miasma as we approach the city. The sky darkens even as the sun rises. It’s late autumn and the coal plants are blazing in preparation for winter. Maybe it is the air. Maybe it’s bad enough to affect even me. Maybe the new skin wasn’t ready when I put it on. Maybe it’s just the standard decay that conquers every Westerner who spends too much time in China. Whatever the reason, Thomas Majors is beginning to come apart again. p. 184
This story reminded me somewhat of the recent film Under the Skin and, although it is not an SF thriller or horror, there is a final scene (spoiler) where the catastrophic decay of Thomas’s external form causes quite a scene. One for the ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies.
The First Day of Someone Else’s Life by John Schoffstall is an information-dense story set in an almost unrecognisable future where a man wakes up in a body that isn’t his. He can hear a female voice speaking to him.
After some workplace/company/political manoeuvring he is (spoiler) rumbled by the company that employs him as a spy whose mind has recently been reprogrammed with another personality. This is competently done but in the end I’m not sure it really amounts to much.
I would note that I have a vague dislike of ultra-dense cyberpunk type narratives. It is probably just laziness but I find they are hard work to read and process, and this one wasn’t helped by some complicated vocabulary—two of the (many) words I stumbled over weren’t even in my OECD and I had to look them up online (the first was pareidolic, p. 209, I think the second was maybe decathexis, p. 222).1
Neko Brushes by Leah Cypess is about a young boy who paints cats. After a samurai arrives at the monastery where he lives, he is taken away. At his new home he is told by the lady of the house to continue paint cats and, later, one comes to life and climbs down off a hanging scroll. After this he is asked to paint a magical sword, which the samurai and the lady plan on using to oust the current shogun.
This is an engaging story up until the ending, which was all over the place (spoiler: the sword is flawed and they lose the battle, the boy paints a picture of the lady but she does not come to life, the lady escapes from her prison cell by painting a door of the wall).
The Prognosticant has a pretty good cover by Maurizio Manzieri, although the electronic/PDF edition of the magazine has the usual crappy low-resolution image (which appears poorly cropped this time as well, look at the cut through the CC on the left hand side of the title).2 Fortunately, whoever put the PDF together left in a cover proof by mistake, which gives a much nicer image to look at as well as the back cover advertisement.3 Why can’t they use this quality of image all the time rather than what appears to be a low-resolution scan of a physical cover? Yes, I know, I’ll get off my high horse.
There are Cartoons by Bill Long, Arthur Masear and Nick Downes in this issue, none of which did anything for me.
The Path of Peace is an OK poem about kings, princes and dragons by Mary Soon Lee
Books to Look For by Charles De Lint and Books by Elizabeth Hand are the review columns. We get another flash of political angst from the latter column:
I’m writing these words in the shadow of a year that ominously presages a future out of the darkest worlds conjured in Literary Wonderlands: that of books like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Never Let Me Go. p. 93-94
And then there is this from Western Histories, the TV column by David J. Skal covering The Man in the High Castle.
Unless you’ve been living in an alternate universe yourself, you may already have taken note that Dick’s parallel reality tale in which Germany won World War II has found an almost daily resonance with media reports and analysis of the disturbing drift toward strongman rule in the United States and Europe. p. 204
They are all beginning to sound like my (almost) namesake Private Frazer, from the British television show Dad’s Army: ‘We’re doomed, Captain Mannering. Doomed, I tell ye, doomed!’3
Plumage from Pegasus: Happiness in a Worn Gunn by Paul di Filippo is a humour piece about an open carry law that is passed in the near future, but one that applies to books.
Robots on the Road by Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty is a fascinating column about self-driving cars that has a number of interesting points. Two of these are:
Pedestrians with their eyes on the phone screen stumble, fall, walk into things, and even step right into traffic. Thanks to this ubiquitous technology, urban pedestrians had to go to the hospital for emergency treatment ten times more often in 2014 as they did in 2006. p. 199
In a situation where the car has to crash into something, what will it choose to crash into? Suppose a car has a choice of running into a crowd of pedestrians or missing them and hitting a concrete pillar. Running into the pillar is more likely to injure the people in the car, while running into the pedestrians is more likely to injure them. What should the car be programmed to choose?
When surveyed, people say a car should take action to save the most lives. But when these same people are asked to make a choice between two cars, their answer changes. Car #1 will save the most lives, even if that decision kills the car’s passenger. Car #2 will make the decision that saves the passenger, even if that means wiping out an entire troop of Girl Scouts. It doesn’t surprise us that people almost always picked Car #2.
For another perspective on this dilemma, Paul discussed the ethics of self-driving cars with a group of Buddhist monks when he was in India. His workshop group of monks instantly suggested a consideration that hadn’t occurred to Paul: the people in the car had chosen to be in the car. The pedestrians, on the other hand, had made no such choice. So perhaps, the monks said, the car should favor saving the pedestrians, who were essentially innocent bystanders. p.200
The winning entries for F&SF Competition #93 are published which, like the cartoons, I mostly didn’t get.
Coming Attractions mentions two stories from the magazine on this year’s Nebula Award ballot: The Liar by John P. Murphy (March/April), which was nominated for Best Novella, and The Long Fall Up by William Ledbetter (May/June), nominated for Best Novelette.4
Finally there is the Curiosities column, this time by Mark Esping. No reflection on this contributor, but I think this column and its tenuous filler is way past its sell-by date. I’d rather have a page on a significant back issue of F&SF (like C. C. Finlay does with his Throw Back Thursday posts on the F&SF blog5).
Another solid issue, which is more of a compliment than you might think.
- Google gives the meaning of pareidolia as: ‘the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful, image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.’ Although decathexis wasn’t in my OECD, cathexis was (which is why I think it may have been another word): ‘the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object (especially to an unhealthy degree).’
- The cover proof: The original low-resolution cover, which is quite blurry compared with the one above:
- Private Frazer can be heard uttering his catchphrase from Dad’s Army on YouTube. Despite innumerable utterances he survived the war. And while we are comparing everything in the current American political scene to Nazi Germany, here is Adolf Hitler on YouTube when he hears about the new Dad’s Army remake.
- I note in passing that there are no short stories or novelettes from either F&SF or Asimov’s SF on the Hugo ballot (Tor.com has the list), which seems strange. This was explained to me as a possible backlash against straight white male writers, but I think it is more complicated than that. There may be a small Puppy effect on the ballot, and possibly a much larger free versus paid content one (at least for the two categories mentioned: the novellas look like they are going the way of novels and being decided by the publication of individual books). I was also rather surprised that while Shelia Williams deservedly made it onto the final ballot, C. C. Finlay didn’t.
- A Throw Back Thursday post from C. C. Finlay on the January 1957 issue of F&SF.