Editor, Sheila Williams; Assistant Editor, Emily Hockaday
On the Ship • short story by Leah Cypess ♥
Come as You Are • novelette by Dale Bailey ♥♥♥
Good Show • short story by William Preston ♥♥
The Escape of the Adastra: Asha’s Story • short story by James E. Gunn ♥♥
Night Fever • novelette by Will Ludwigsen ♥♥♥♥
Tired of the Same Old Quests? • short story by Peter Wood ♥♥♥
The Best Man • short story by Jay O’Connell ♥♥
Triceratops • short story by Ian McHugh ♥♥♥
Persephone of the Crows • short story by Karen Joy Fowler ♥
The Runabout • short novel by Kristine Kathryn Rusch ♥
The Runabout • cover by Jim Simpson
Anniversaries and Milestones • editorial by Sheila Williams
Advertisements For Myself • essay by Robert Silverberg
Harry and Dot • essay by James Patrick Kelly
Poetry • by Tod McCoy, Robert Frazier, Suzanne Palmer, G. O. Clark
On Books: Wolockification • by Norman Spinrad
SF Conventional Calendar • by Erwin S. Strauss
This issue is quite a mixed one so I’ll start with the material I liked best: you can stop reading when you come to the moaning.
The best story is Night Fever by Will Ludwigsen, which takes the psychopathic cult leader and murderer Charles Manson and places him in a parallel-world New York disco scene (he is released from prison ten years later than he was in this timestream and doesn’t go to California). As one of his female cult-members recalls:
I took all three of them to Infinity one night, mostly because I was curious how they’d behave. Libby had been dancing before, and she plunged out on the floor like a cop wading into a brawl; she lost her shirt about thirty minutes later and didn’t notice. Samson swayed on the floor with girls and some guys flocked all around, pulling on his arms and belt like they were dancing around a maypole.
Charlie … he spent the whole night walking backward as though trying to get it all into his eyes at once. He watched DJ Ca$hflow at the booth, fascinated by the dual turntables and all the switches and sliders, probably most fascinated by the power: DJ Ca$hflow could make people move and feel as one.
Libby lured Charlie onto the dance floor and showed him her own clumsy moves, but he passed her with his own in about ten minutes. He could flow out there like a cobra rising from a basket, and people kind of backed up in wonder at this guy in an old buckskin jacket strutting like he’d grown up on Soul Train.
All he kept saying that night—yelling through the music—was, “Man, where have these people been?”
It was nice to blow his mind for a change. p. 70
Manson once again forms a cult, this time based on the disco culture of New York; it isn’t long before the craziness starts.
I liked this story a lot: it is a gritty, absorbing piece that has an interesting collage structure that includes book extracts, interviews and court transcripts; another reason is possibly age-related, in that I can remember the disco scene from the TV show Top of the Pops, and also remember checking out a book about Manson from the library when I was 12 or 13, the first inkling I had that there are mad as well as bad people in the world.
One for the awards’ short lists and ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies.1
The other stories I liked come from Dale Bailey, Peter Wood and Ian McHugh.
Come as You Are by Dale Bailey concerns a college student who drops out and becomes a ‘headspace’ user:
Anything that can be turned into a drug will be turned into a drug. Call it Dave’s Law. For example, I once knew some guys who smoked catnip, their thinking being that if it can fuck your cat up, then it can surely do the same for you. They were wrong, of course, but the example is germane, and there are dozens of others. Paint thinner, Wite-Out, nitrous oxide, you name it. Remember that old Ramones cut, “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”? It wasn’t just because he liked the smell.
As with any self-respecting proposition, Dave’s Law comes with a couple of corollaries:
First, all drugs are about ditching your core self. It’s good to get away, to take a little vacation from our own neuroses. Think of the language we use to describe getting high: we get obliterated, blasted, annihilated. We get bombed and wasted, ripped, smashed, torn up, you name it. We destroy ourselves to escape ourselves.
Second, this makes headspace the perfect drug. You not only nullify your troublesome self—most of it, anyway—you get the added bonus of being someone else. The human condition is pretty goddamn solitary when you think about it. We’re all shackled inside our own heads. That’s what it’s all about, really—stories, paintings, music, language itself, from Finnegan’s Wake to prehistoric symbols daubed on cave walls. Attempts to bridge the abyss, to connect.
Once you’ve dropped a tab of headspace, you know you’re not alone. p. 26
Later on the group of users/friends he socialises with disintegrates, and he starts a relationship with a woman called Maggie, who has been supplying them with headspace.
For the most part this is a fairly strong piece but it is let down by an ending that didn’t make any sense to me. (Spoiler: he ends up being thrown out by her after she takes a headspace tablet that is made from his personality scan. Eventually he returns to his parents and enters therapy. After one particular session he thinks about dropping one of his own tablets to see what he is like. I fail to see how that would be any different from just being himself.)
Tired of the Same Old Quests? by Peter Wood starts with this:
Mirk and her friends, the stable boy and the elf, played Suburbs and Cubicles. Mirk wished she wasn’t just pretending to live in an exciting world of surviving by her wits instead of the real world of monotonous magic and never-ending quests.
The Suburb Master, the mop-haired stable boy who served Mirk’s father, leaned back on a mound of straw and set the scene for the game. “You’re watering the lawn. Your neighbor, a class three social status—something called a ‘software engineer’—asks if you are coming to his barbecue next Saturday.”
Mirk knew her father might find her hiding in the stables and make her prepare for tomorrow’s month-long quest, but right now she was more concerned about the game. She hadn’t allocated enough points to social status. Her character was a male and could bench press two hundred pounds but was a mere insurance salesman.
“I tell my neighbor that I’ll let him know later.” Mirk hoped the gamble paid off.
She rolled the twenty-sided die. “Eight.”
The Suburb Master unfurled a scroll. “One point for your sports car, one for the best lawn, minus four for your job. That makes your roll a six. Your neighbor is displeased. Your wives had already discussed this barbecue. Your wife was going to make corn dip.”
“Corn dip?” The elf frowned. “What in the name of the Goddess is corn dip?” p. 93
Mirk gets dragged away from the game by her grumpy father go on a quest to the Mountains of Despair to deal with Zokar the wizard.
This is a charming fantasy that could have equally have appeared in F&SF. I only wish it had been longer.
Triceratops by Ian McHugh starts with the narrator viewing a Neanderthal male at a research facility in Japan. After this he goes to a reservation in northern Canada where they have Thalers (another proto-human) and mammoths amongst several other revived species. Like the O’Connell story that follows, this is a future slice-of-life—but quite a good piece for all that: at one point in the story, when the one of the mammoths nuzzles the narrator’s hand, I was completely transported. You sometimes find a sense of wonder in the most unexpected places.
The also-rans include the stories by Leah Cypress, William Preston, James Gunn and Karen Joy Fowler.
On the Ship by Leah Cypess is about a young girl on a spaceship speaking to her friend when a red-headed woman appears. Only the young girl sees the women. Some time later it becomes apparent that the girl is in a VR program inhabited by passengers who are in cryosleep, and that there are forces which are attempting to prevent these refugees from Earth awakening at a suitable planet.
At one point in the story there is a reference made to the St Louis, a WWII Jewish refugee ship which was refused entry in America and Cuba and had to return to Europe. This (spoiler) is the action that the girl bafflingly takes when she eventually manages to wake herself up: she sends them back to Earth. If there is a point to this, I missed it.
Good Show by William Preston involves a film reviewer who is asked to a select screening. When he gets there with a female friend, he finds three oddly dressed and unusual looking people, and also realises that no-one else has been invited.
The film itself is a short and unconventional piece about a town that is destroyed in an avalanche. The reviewer and his friend later discover that this is footage of an actual event, but one that doesn’t happen to the next day. They subsequently view increasingly violent and disastrous films.
My disbelief was not entirely suspended, but I thought this was OK.
The Escape of the Adastra: Asha’s Story by James E. Gunn is a short story set in the world of his current trilogy (Transcendental, 2013, Transgalactic, 2016, Transformation, 2017)—although ISFDB labels this as the ‘Riley and Asha’ series.
It tells of the generation starship Adastra, and how it and its crew and passengers are captured and taken to Federation Central, the headquarters of an organisation that controls that spiral arm of the galaxy. There they are held as prisoners for many years before (spoiler) they manage to escape.
I liked this but it reads too much like a dense and fragmentary sidebar to the trilogy. There are a couple more stories from this series in the next issue.
Persephone of the Crows by Karen Joy Fowler starts with two young girls discussing wishes. The elder of the two leaves to go home with her parents, and her drunken father crashes the car on the way there. When she regains consciousness her parents are gone and the car is surrounded by crows.
The next time she wakes up (there is a perspective shift as she is now relating this to a young man she is hitching a lift with years later) she is in her bed at home but, she later discovers, her parents are different people.
Perhaps this is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ story, but it left me baffled.
The last group contains two stories that, in part at least, irritated me. Very occasionally I’ll find one story in an issue that does this, but to find two is quite unusual.
The Best Man by Jay O’Connell is about a man who gets infected in the near future by the IP2 virus that gives him a physical and mental aversion to his own skin (colour, presumably, as he dons green Halloween makeup for most of the rest of the story). Meanwhile, he organises himself to go to his rich brother’s wedding in Italy, where the latter is getting married to a Filipino man called Jericho. Superficially, this is a pleasant enough slice-of-life but there is no real story here (unless you consider a minor voyage of self-discovery and development ‘a story’).
The problem I had with this one is that the more I thought about it afterwards, the more problematical it seemed (disclaimer on the following comments; I’m reviewing the story, not the writer’s soul). The most troubling aspect is a narrator who hates and/or is repelled by his own skin.
My face in the mirror was peach colored and ruddy and mottled looking, like a piece of rotting fruit. There were dozens of different colors in my skin, beneath layers of translucency threaded with branching bluish veins. The overall effect was repulsive. I’d never noticed before how ugly my skin was. p. 101
He is a white man so no problem, right? Well, if you think that, change the white man above to a person of colour and watch the resultant Twitter storm. What is good for the goose. . .
There are other irritating details. One of them is what seems like a rant about the recent United Kingdom Brexit vote—this is at the end of the story, by which time the narrator has joined World Corps’ volunteers and is about to travel there:
I hefted my pack and walked down the gangway. I’d be arriving in Liverpool in three hours. The former U.K. had been in tatters for decades, its economy devastated by waves of misplaced xenophobia, sectarian strife, and useless protectionism. Whatever one thought of their leadership, their children deserved better. Parts of the U.K. now combined the world’s third highest infant mortality rate with the second lowest literacy rate. The two numbers were always inversely related. Huge swaths of the population were hostile to modern teaching techniques, infected with a resurgent Luddism.2 p. 11
Not only is this unconvincing but it is tonally darker than the rest of a generally upbeat piece.
The Runabout by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is described as a short novel (Kindle says 42,677 words, Word says 45,000-ish) and is from the writer’s ‘Diving Universe’ series. Initially, this gets off to a good start with the narrator, ‘Boss,’ diving as part of a team in a spaceship graveyard called the Boneyard when she hears strange music—this is how she experiences the waves coming from spaceship anacapa drives. These drives and their odd temporal effects are strange black-box technology that no-one completely understands. There is some chatter and tension amongst the team when she reports this, but they continue the dive.
The next chapter gives us a data dump about the anacapa drives’ temporal effects, a genetic marker that the Boss has which gives her a certain resistance, her Lost Souls Corporation, which specialises in recovering ships, her mother’s death on a dive, a Fleet spaceship that arrived in their time from five thousand years ago, the Empire’s threat to the Nine Planets Alliance, etc., etc. This is all a bit kitchen sink but is well enough done.
Back at the dive the Boss gets more twitched as the music is now much louder and stranger than she expects. She tries to work out where the music is coming from but aborts the dive when she can’t.
Up until this point I was engaged with the story but from there on it goes rapidly downhill. This is mostly due to endless dull detail about what they are going to do, what the Boss is thinking, the slight friction between the crew, the meetings they have, endless chatter about the Fleet and the displaced crew of the Ivoire, etc. The only highlights are the second and third dives that they undertake to a small runaround spaceship where they eventually locate the anomalous drive.
Another problem is that there is also a huge amount of redundant wordage that contributes absolutely nothing to the story. Take this passage when the Boss goes to visit a diver called Elaine who is in the sick bay:
Elaine’s room is the only one with a closed door and a medical alert blinking to the side. If there were other medical personnel here, they could tap on that alert and see exactly what’s wrong with the patient inside the room. Unfortunately, she’s on her own, as I was. I didn’t mind. I hope she doesn’t either.
I slip through the door. The room smells faintly of antiseptic and sweat. Elaine lies in the middle of a large bed, curled on her side, blankets swirled around her as if she’s been sleeping restlessly. There are three alert buttons near her, and another not too far from her left hand.
I stare at the alert for a moment, vaguely remembering that I had had that many as well. Someone had explained it to me, and I had forgotten until now. I wonder how much of my life and memories from the past few days are just gone because of what happened. Then I set that thought aside. I’ll worry about it later.
A chair sits close to the bed. It’s not a diagnostic chair. It must be one of the chairs Jaylene has been using. She hasn’t been in my room as much these past two days. She’s probably been here, worrying about Elaine.
I sit down. “Elaine?” I say softly. p. 177
If you deleted everything that is underlined, how much useful information would you have lost? And there are passages that are much worse than this. Here they are watching a video of the spaceship and Elaine sees something that the others have missed:
Elaine sees their surprise, and something in her face changes. She thinks they don’t believe her because of her injuries.
“Can you pan?” she asks.
“We have what we have,” Yash says.
“Then re … re … reverse,” Elaine says. “I’ll show you.”
She struggles against the chair.
“I don’t want you to stand,” Jaylene says, but Elaine ignores her. Elaine rises, slowly, her head brace moving with her.
The chair changes shape, almost like it’s reaching for her. She uses one arm of the chair to brace her left side. Her right side shuffles.
Jaylene and Mikk have stood as well, moving just close enough to Elaine to support her if she falls. She looks determined not to.
She uses her chair, then another, and then another to step herself to the edge of the table where Yash is. Yash takes a step closer to Elaine, but Elaine says, “Please move … back.”
For a moment, Yash doesn’t move at all. She doesn’t seem to understand what Elaine wants, but I do.
‘Yash,” I say. “You’re in her way.”
“Oh,” Yash says, and scrambles aside.
I get up as well, and Jaylene shoots me a glare that would have made me stop moving yesterday. But I’m all right. I’m healing, probably thanks to those nanobits.
Besides, if Elaine can move, I can too.
I walk down the other side of the table. Now Elaine and I are flanking Yash. “What
do you want me to reverse to?” I ask Elaine.
“I got it,” Yash says.
I ignore her, keeping my hand on the controls. I have a hunch I know where Elaine is going with this.
“The first.. . gli. .. gla .. . when we first see the cockpit,” Elaine says. p. 173-174
Again, how much useful information would be lost excising the material that is underlined? OK, the part about the chair changing shape is interesting but this has been mentioned previously. All of this makes it read like a bloated first or second draft.
What really kills this, though, is the ending. Having spent the entire story setting up the anomalous drive problem and searching for its location, what happens on the third dive (spoiler) is that the drive, having switched off previously, comes back on and activates, which causes the runaround to vanish into fold-space. So, having set up a problem, it is ‘solved’ in the last act (40,000 words later!) by having it vanish—what kind of ending is that?
There is the usual non-fiction. Anniversaries and Milestones by Sheila Williams uses her editorial to list some of her personal anniversaries as well as those of the magazine: 2017 is not only the 40th anniversary of the magazine but her 35th as a member of staff. It is also her 30th year of wedlock.
Advertisements For Myself by Robert Silverberg is a plug for three of his books, two collections of his columns and a book of interviews with him, Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (I bought the ebook but haven’t yet read). In the preamble to these notifications there is commentary on Norman Mailer and Isaac Asimov, which contains this information:
Asimov, unable to get into Columbia because of the anti-Jewish quotas of the era, went to Seth Low, a college established by Columbia to accommodate deserving students excluded by quota from Columbia itself). p. 6
I never knew about these quotas. Nor that the practice continued long after WWII.3
Harry and Dot by James Patrick Kelly is an interesting column about the Wizard of Oz books and films (as well as other related material such as Harry Potter).
The Poetry in this issue is by Tod McCoy (about standing outside a bookstore with a chemistry colleague looking at the rain, which I liked), Robert Frazier, Suzanne Palmer, and G. O. Clark
On Books: Wolockification is another excellent essay by Norman Spinrad, who starts by explaining his invention of Wolocks:
Yes, Wolocks are a nonexistent ethnic identity I once invented to be the butt of all the ethnic jokes that can’t be told in public—they won’t be offended, because they don’t exist.
Why is such wolockification necessary and indeed perhaps even inevitable? p. 200
He then goes on to discuss this practice is in SF:
Why has so much science fiction and fantasy been written and continues to be written about wars by humans against wolockified enemies? Aliens. Robots. Demons. Ghouls. Zombies. The Living Dead.
Literarily and literally non-human.
Perfectly wolockified enemies.
This has been a dominant plot structure of science fiction and fantasy as long as there has been genre fiction, and indeed of much fiction time out of mind.
[. . .]
And science fiction and genre fantasy can and do perfect the wolockification of the enemy for story purposes, with fictional wolockified enemies who really are not human and therefore can be guiltlessly slaughtered. Fictional “heroes” do the killing without feeling guilt, and guiltless readers or viewers get their rocks off on the fictional carnage. p. 201
He then develops this theme by looking at the anti-wolockification of StarTrek versus the opposite in Star Wars, Verne versus Wells, etc., before going on to review an anthology called Deserts of Fire: Speculative Fiction and the Modern War by Douglas Lain.
The latter part of the essay reviews China Miéville’s new novel, The Last Days of New Paris. I’ve never read anything by this writer but Spinrad’s enthusiastic review made me order this one (parallel-world Nazi-occupied France with manifestations that are apparently surrealistic monsters). He adds this about the ending:
That’s about as far as I think I should go with these interlocking time lines, alternate time lines, and slowly coalescing plot lines, except to assure the reader that it does all come together satisfyingly at the end. If that is the end, for in another afterword that’s hard to believe really is an afterword, Mieville purports to tell us that the novel was dictated to him verbatim and nonstop by a mystery man in a hotel room for thirty or so hours during which Mieville drank wine from the mini-bar but never took a piss. Don’t try this at home. p. 206
Finally, there are once again short biographical notes from the writers. I found a few of these quite interesting (Leah Cypess, Jay O’Connell, Ian McHugh, Kristine Kathryn Rusch).
Quite a mixed issue this one, with the material I disliked almost cancelling out the benefit of the good.
- Will Ludwigsen has compiled a Spotify playlist (search on his name in the app) as ‘you might need a little music to get in the mood.’ What, to get in the mood for a killing spree? Apart from, Rod Stewart, Blondie and the Bay City Rollers on a disco playlist? I wouldn’t call them, or a few of the others, disco. And where is the 12-inch mix of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love?
- I can see how you might, from a distance, extrapolate from Brexit to ‘misplaced xenophobia,’ and ‘sectarian strife’ but ‘misplaced protectionism’? That is the complete antithesis of what anyone wants. Also, how does a country go from being an advanced Western nation to having ‘the world’s third highest infant mortality rate’ (italics mine) and ‘the second lowest literacy rate’? And as for ‘resurgent Luddism,’ I’d be interested to know how they managed to prise everyone’s smartphone from their hands.
- Numerus Clausus at Wikipedia.