If you keep up with science, or you watch Star Trek Discovery, you already know what this little fellow at left is. That’s right, it’s a tardigrade, or “water bear,” and it’s a teeny-weeny eight-leggity beastie, as Robbie Burns might call it. It’s up here to distract you from the fact that I’m tardy (i.e., late) with my Jan.-Feb. F&SF review. But before I get on to the review, let me give you a few facts about yon wee critter. The biggest ones are around a millimeter and a half big; the smallest ones are a tenth of that. Newborns—I have no idea whether they’re hatched, but I’ll bet they are—are five hundredths of a millimeter! These little guys will beat out the cockroach in your typical SFnal doomsday scenario; they can go up to 30 days without eating or drinking, can withstand the cold of outer space, and can even go a while without breathing. And heat doesn’t bother them any more than cold. Oh, and they predate the dinosaurs! Aren’t they just the cutest little monsters?
Like all issues I’ve ever seen of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (which we’ll continue calling F&SF, because it’s shorter), this issue is chock-full of SFnal goodness, and even science! Going from larger to smaller, we have a novella, two novelets (I’m not sure if these are the same as “novelettes”), and eight short stories. In addition to all the fiction, we have two book columns (Charles de Lint and Michelle West); Jerry Oltion’s science (yes, real science, not SF) column; a film column by E.G. Neill, who seems no more impressed with Venom than I was; an almost indescribable column by Paul Di Filippo called “Plumage From Pegasus” which references a currently hot pop-culture Danish word (“hygge”); a “Curiousity” column by the aforesaid Paul Di Filippo about a book of A.E. Coppard (is the spelling of “Curiousity” some sort of pun?); some Coming Attractions; and finally, a cartoon by Arthur Masear. Now if that’s not worth a couple of bucks (I have no idea what the current cover price is), nothing is. And you can still get it on the newsstands—if there are any where you live—and bookstores (ditto) until March 4!
I won’t go into detail on the non-fictional contents, because you can read them for free on F&SF’s website (click on link). But I will be happy to share with you my opinion on the fiction that C.C. Finlay, the editor, has chosen to enliven this issue with! I’ll start with the shortest piece in this issue and work my way up the chain to the novella.
“The Right Number of Cats,” by Jenn Reese, is about cats, but much more about loss. I’m predisposed to like it, because I, too, like to sleep with my cat curled up against me, his little motor vibrating against my chest. (We only do this for naps; he doesn’t sleep with my wife and me at night.) Grace has become untethered since Alma died. The Fourth Cat might change all that.
Paul Di Filippo’s “Plumage From Pegasus” I’ve already mentioned in describing the non-fiction contents, but it’s obviously fiction, so here we go: using the real-life actor Kate Hamill as a hook, this story is about a New York actor who’s acted in three back-to-back adaptations by Kate and her partner. She’s notable for (in the words of the New York Times) “madcap adaptations” of works like Pride and Prejudice that are frenetic and very uptempo. The protagonist of Di Filippo’s story is seeking relief from the pace, and is offered a chance, by a producing firm called “Hygge and Koselig” to act in a new series of slowed-down adaptations of classic SF/F works such as The Hobbit and Game of Thrones, where the main activity seems to be taking refreshment. (The name of the firm is a nod to the recent adoption of Danish words into the lifestyles of the trendy, mostly “hygge,” which translates into “cozy,” but to me means the sort of cozy found in Bilbo’s house.) It’s funny, reasonably well written, but kinda pointless. (Not meant to be a dig, by the way; lots of SF/F is actually pointless.)
“Fifteen Minutes From Now,” by Erin Cashier, is about time travel. It’s not like any other time travel story you’ve read, I’m sure. The protagonist is chosen by the authorities merely on the basis of his telomeres. You know what telomeres are, right? They’re on the end of your chromosomes, and they’re a kind of built-in obsolescence: when they degrade enough, your chromosomes can’t reproduce and you die. (Yeah, that’s a simplistic not-quite-correct explanation, but it’ll do for now.) The protagonist’s telomeres have the property of lasting a long time, because he needs to be sent into the future again and again. That’s all I can tell you. Except to ask: do the ends really justify the means?
“Tactical Infantry Bot 37 Dreams of Trochees” by Marie Vibbert is somewhat reminiscent of Martha Wells’ “Murderbot” books, in that the protagonist is an AI in an artificial body that conforms more or less to the human standard. In this case, Infantry Bot 37 seems more disconnected from what “she’s” doing than Wells’ Murderbot. 37 is more interested in collecting words and phrases from the humans she and the other bots are protecting in this futuristic war than in actually furthering this particular “forever” war. Oh, she does her job, but in a more reactive than active manner, so that most of her human charges end up dead anyway. (But most of her fellow bots end up the same way.) 37 is mostly interested in the rhyme and rhythm of phrases and things like Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha.” Not as sympathetic a character as Murderbot, 37 is still interesting.
Carrie Vaughn’s “To the Beautiful Shining Twilight” is an urban fantasy; similar to those Charles de Lint books I used to read a lot—it’s odd to realize I haven’t seen one in years—involving a person, Abby, and a visitor from the land of Faerie, who’s forgotten how differently time flows between here and there. It’s been thirty years for her, but who knows how long for him? A story about regret, and what it means to be human and mortal.
“The Fall From Griffin’s Peak” by Pip Coen is a full-on fantasy about Rosemary Hunt, thief and con-woman. It’s set, as so many fantasies are, on a pseudo-medieval world where magic is a fact. Infrastructure is assumed—again, as in so many fantasies, so the story can progress without too many questions about how things work. She’s hired—well, under duress—by someone who appears to be an up-town dandy, to retrieve (okay, steal) a rare jewel called a Griffin’s Tear. The legend goes that a Griffin’s Tear is shed by a griffin as it dies and, when swallowed, can cure all diseases and poisons and so on. Most griffin hunters die, falling from Griffin’s Peak, and so the Tear is a rare jewel even without the legendary cure. How Rosemary goes about this theft is the subject of the story; I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s more poignant than most tales of this type, and pretty well written to boot.
The prolific Robert Reed gives us “The Province of Saints,” and what appears to be a monstrous crime scene in an unnamed town. Mitch Laven is a small-town cop who knows the woman who appears to be one of the few—if not the only—survivors from a family picnic. The Billings family was one of the richest in the state; the Billings farmhouse had been remodeled over the years into a mansion, and most of the family had been there for the old man’s birthday party. But somehow the mansion caught fire, and the State cops and fire departments had pulled, at last count, 29 bullet-ridden bodies from the embers and ashes. Mary Sue Billings had been found sitting in her car at the end of the driveway and was being questioned about her involvement, if any, in the slaughter. The State cop who called Mitch in, at Mary Sue’s request, suspects a new neuroenhancer was somehow involved. Because Mitch knew Mary Sue’s brother, Gordon, he was called in to help with her questioning. Little by little, Reed discloses, through the conversation between these two people, what happened and why, on that fateful night. I’m not sure I agree with Reed’s conclusions (through his character), but it’s a good story nonetheless.
“Survey,” by Adam-Troy Castro is about a research project (with remuneration) offered to a university student, Steph Alpern, a sophomore in Communications Arts. I used to work at Washington State University, and I occasionally saw flyers for these sorts of things, most offering a small amount of money. This particular offer was for filling out a questionnaire with a stated reward of a thousand dollars if the student completed the questionnaire. Steph had previously done a study which required her to watch a James Stewart Western (with Rock Hudson), and which paid her $50; the author said that particular study was from his personal experience. This is all to establish that these studies are pretty common; by the time you get halfway into this story, you’ll find this study is not in the least common. Could you complete the questionnaire? I’m not sure I could; this is a scary, and well-written scenario.
“The Washer from the Ford” by Sean McMullen, like Carrie Vaughn’s story, involves the world of the Fae (no, it’s not about a car part)—in other words, an urban fairy tale. Apparently, distance in the mortal world is no barrier, since this story takes place in Melbourne, Australia. Apparently, there’s a Scottish fairy called the Bean Nighe, who only appears to those about to die. They’ll see her at a ford (as in a river), washing their bloody clothes. Our protagonist, Peter, a computer specialist who’s not about to die does so. How? Why? And what happens next? Ah, that would be telling. A very clever little tale, in my opinion.
Andy Duncan’s “Joe Diabo’s Farewell” is about Mohawk Native Americans working skyscraper construction in New York back in the ‘20s. The narrator is Eddie Two Rivers DeLisle, a Caughnawaga Mohawk, who works as a heater, the guy who gets the rivets red hot so the riveter can hammer (a pneumatic hammer) the heads down to set the rivet, working thirty stories or more above the ground, standing on steel I-beams in the cold New York wind. Joe Diabo was the best riveter around, though the men often changed jobs for a break, which only happened when the forge (for heating the rivets) had to be moved along the beam. One day on a break, Joe Diabo wiped the sweat off his forehead and stepped backward into empty air. The rest of the story tells about Eddie’s participation in a movie première—it was a film about Custer’s last stand—and the producers wanted “real Indians” for the lobby displays, and how Joe Diabo said goodbye. The story’s more an atmospheric “slice-of-life” thing, rather than a real deep fantasy, but more than a few points are made, and it vividly brings to life a time that’s long gone. Quite enjoyable!
Leah Cypess’s “Blue as Blood” is not fantasy; it’s pure SF. Nina was born on an alien world, in the human colony there. The Pinj are the first aliens humans have had contact with, and they’re something like giant bugs. They’re also more technologically advanced than we are, and they can cure anything. But there’s one catch: they can’t see the colour blue without getting ill or dying. Which means that the human colony, and all humans who interact with the Pinj, have to either cover up all blue or make sure there is nothing blue on them—including blue eyes! And should they visit Earth, there will be nothing blue allowed, and that includes the sky! Nina was born in the human colony set up by the Pinj on a world, the location of which is only known to the Pinj. The Pinj also decreed that humans should be given limited exposure to the rest of the galaxy—and that a few selected humans would be given medical assistance in the colony. When Nina comes to Earth she is made violently ill by all the blue she sees there. The resolution to this conundrum is somewhat startling. Not to us, the readers, but to the rest of the people on Earth. A well thought-out story!
And finally, the novella, by Phyllis Eisenstein, “The City of Lost Desire,” is a continuation of several stories begun in the 1970s in F&SF. Alaric, a troubador/bard and a thief with some witchly powers, has matured in the intervening years between those stories and this one. Alaric, together with his aide-de-camp Arnay—a young man he rescued some time before—has joined the caravan of Piros, which is headed west across the desert to a city with no name, reputed to be the oldest city in the world. They reach a tower that might be the tallest tower anywhere; it’s a tower with no door, and no windows, and nobody knows how long it’s been there. There are tales and songs that speak of captive princesses at the top, guarded by monsters below; of treasure locked in an unbreakable tower; all these and more are known to Alaric in songs and ballads. As they have journeyed, he has sung some of the songs to the caravaners. Piros makes this journey every year, bringing rare goods—carven chairs of the finest quality, jewels of every sort, amazing fabrics smoother and better-woven than anything the weavers in the west can create—and finally, crates sealed with pitch that contain a Powder, sometimes called The Powder of Peace, that beguiles and enslaves those that fall prey to its dreams.
Alaric’s interaction with both the tower and the city—and the King and his Prince and Princess—form the body of the novella; and if you like fantasy, this one is a peach. There are no bloody conflicts here, although its setting’s description is somewhat reminiscent of R.E. Howard’s desert cities—particularly (in my mind) Shadizar the Wicked—there’s enough description here to allow the reader to visualize the action and setting vividly. I, personally, will have to try to find the earlier Alaric stories and reread them now, as my appetite has been whetted.
All in all, a fine issue, worth four flibbets! ¤¤¤¤
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