Thirty-Nine years ago, I asked Alex Schomburg to make me a personalized nametag for convention-going. He said, “What do you want on it?” I said (visualizing something like the Winston covers that are for me the epitome of ‘50s science fiction) “Oh, just do whatever you want.” The result is in Figure 1. While it wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind, it’s an original Schomburg, and there aren’t that many Schomburg nametags around, so I’ve worn it proudly.
Last weekend, starting June 21, I attended the MosCon Revival put on by Kathy Sprague, sister of original PESFAn Rod Sprague (Admiral of the Hot Tub Fleet), in Pullman, WA. It was more or less a relaxicon, with only about 30 tracks of programming (!). The GOHs (in no particular order) were Cat Rambo, Richard Kadrey, Rantz Hosely, Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor, Crix Lee, Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, Sanan Kolva, Vince Roux and, of course, your humble narrator. (Me, in other words.) People came from all over—it’s at least an 8-hour drive for us—but the con itself was small. I’ll try a fuller review next column. I understand Kathy’s planning on another one!
The month of June is almost done, and I’ve been remiss; I owe Gordon Van Gelder and the fine folks at F&SF an apology for leaving this review so late! So here without further kerfuffle, is my review. The cover in Figure 2, by the way, is by Cory and Katska Ench for “New Atlantis.” Here are the contents by type: One novella: “New Atlantis,” by Lavie Tidhar; three novelets: “Thirty-Three Wicked Daughters,” by Kelly Barnhill, “How To Kiss A Hojacki,” by Debbie Urbanski, and “Sternutative Sortilege,” by Matthew Hughes. The fiction is wound up with six short stories and two poems. The short stories are: “The Abundance” by Andy Dudak; “Breath,” by Bruce McAllister; “The Moss Kings,” by David Gullen; “Second Skin,” by Pip Coen; “The Fourth Trimester Is The Strangest,” by Rebecca Campbell; and, finally, “Apocalypse Considered Through A Helix Of Semiprecious Foods And Recipes,” by Tobias S. Buckell. The two poems are “Guinevere,” by Mary Soon Lee; and “From Tierra Del Fuego To The Moluccas,” by Gretchen Tessmer.
And then there’s the usual set of non-fiction offerings: Book reviews by Charles deLint and Elizabeth Hand; deLint spends a large part of his column talking about ebooks as possible ephemera, then notes that even paper isn’t permanent. His reviews are always worth reading, if only for the extra information, as in his review of Space Babe Coloring Book by Jeanne Gomoll, he gives history of Space Babe, which is tied in with WisCon, which is tied in with the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, which is tied in with Ellen Klages… fascinating stuff. And his book reviews themselves are fair to both writers and readers, in that he doesn’t give spoilers.
Hand’s column is largely devoted to “folk horror,” a term that’s new to me, but has either been around since 1920 or 1975, depending on your source. I won’t go into it deeply, but some things she mentions as being key to folk horror—whether in fiction or film—are a landscape, a sense of isolation, and ancient rituals, all of which England has in spades, but which Hand feels America lacks. I would cavill a bit, because—depending on your definition of “ancient” (the U.S. these days lacks any real sense of history, which appears to me to go only back as far as the Civil War any more)—I think the Northeast has both of the latter in spades, and the West (including Alaska) is known for both landscape and isolation. But on the whole, she’s right, and she cites one of my all-time favourite authors as a folk horror writer—or maybe the authors of the book she’s reviewing (Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies — Second Edition, eds. Andy Paciorek, Grey Malkin, Richard Hing and Katherine Peach) do: it’s M.R. James, which forces me to like both her review and the book under review. (Yes, I’m shallow.) Other horror-related books she talks about include one called Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You, which from the review sounds like a lot of fun. (Yes, I’m also weird, thinking of horror—whether psychological or splatterpunk or anything in between—as fun.)
Karin Lowachee’s film column is titled “Bird Box Never Quite Takes Off”, and contains many spoilers (the reader is warned about that right at the start). I empathize with Ms. Lowachee, because it’s hard to write a killer review of a bad movie, which she says Bird Box is, without spoilers to tell why you thought it was bad. I can neither agree nor deny, as the reviews of this Netflix offering were so uniformly disparaging that I skipped it as I did the one about making noise—what was it called? Oh, yeah, A Quiet Place—because it just sounded like absolute bulldooky. Ms. Lowachee bolsters her review with examples, which is fine with me, but her habit of writing Sandra Bullock’s name as “Everyone Loves Sandra Bullock” and John Malkovich’s as “John Malkovich Being John Malkovich” every time is more than a bit cutesy. I will probably have to watch these two films some time because I’m a bit OCD/completist, but I’m not looking forward to them.
Jerry Oltion literally tells you “How to Calculate an Orbit” in his science column; this information isn’t aimed just at science geeks, but is actually useful for both writers and readers of SF; just how accurate is a given writer’s science when he/she talks about orbits, escape velocity, etc.? And, finally, Paul di Filippo talks about Cordwainer Smith’s 1949 novel Atomsk in his “Curiosities” column. (As most of you already know, Smith was actually Paul Linebarger, but that’s neither here nor there.) Called a “mainstream novel,” this book contains enough predictive and SFnal elements to qualify as a genre novel, though it wasn’t written as such. And then there’s the result of Competition #97, which I won’t describe except to tell you that the first-prize winner was hilarious!
On to the fiction (finally!); I won’t be reviewing it in order, but as the mood strikes me, if that’s okay with you. (Since I control both the horizontal and the vertical, I guess it has to be.) I’ll start with the two poems, one of which I really liked, and the other one not so much. “From Tierra de Fuego to the Moluccas” by Gretchen Tessmer, is one I liked a lot; the imagery is good, and I think it succeeds on its own terms, which is at its heart the wish to deny the control of men over the bodies and souls of young girls, though couched a bit more subtly. The second poem, “Guinevere,” by Mary Soon Lee, was problematic for me for several reasons. As you can tell by the title, it’s Arthurian, and my issue is that it’s an attempt to recast the legend in modern terms and with modern values, right from the start. I believe we need some heroes and myths to remain bright and shiny, to encourage the young to believe that there’s some kind of ultimate goodness we can all strive for. Like the later Doc Savage books that took away his special powers and made him more or less an ordinary detective, this poem turns Arthur into just another clumsy male badly deflowering his bride and then brutalizing her sexually when he was drunk. Yes, if he was a real person, that’s probably how he was, but who in that time and at that place was better? And how would an Englishwoman of that period know any better? I prefer the legend, where Guinevere is neglected not because Arthur was an ignorant oaf, but because he was focused on uplifting the whole social system. No, for me this poem, well written as it was, devalues the Arthurian legend in, possibly, feminist terms. I don’t think we can rewrite the past in modern terms without twisting it. (Even if the past is wholly mythical.) But the poem is well written, and my issues with it are my issues.
“New Atlantis,” by Lavie Tidhar, is the longest piece in the magazine; it’s in some way related to all the mythic journey stories you’ve ever read, from Jack Vance (Big Planet) to J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit) and everything between. It’s a travelogue and a post-apocalyptic semi-utopian dream: humans used to rule the planet, then the moon broke, the seas rose, and now most of whom are left—centuries later—live in harmony with the other inhabitants; most scarcely eat meat. It’s an interesting story, but you will have to take it on its own terms; it’s full of internal contradictions; for example, much of Britain is underwater, yet the I.M. Pei pyramid at The Louvre still stands, its glass more or less intact. Don’t take it seriously and you might enjoy it
“How To Kiss A Hojacki,” by Debbie Urbanski, is an odd one; while putatively it’s about transformations, in actuality it seems to me to be about male-female expectations of, and reactions to, marriage, as well as just plain male-female relationships. It’s very well written, and I find the end to be chilling—no pun intended for those who’ve read it—and there are no conclusions drawn by the author; I believe she wants you to draw your own. In my opinion, it’s kind of a bleak view of those relationships. And there’s a brief section inspired by the current White House occupant.
Next up, we look at “Sternutative Sortilege,” by Matthew Hughes; one of the popular series of stories of Raffalon the thief—all published in F&SF, which were collected last year into a book called 9 Tales of Raffalon. This was a newly-written story for the book, or at least one that hadn’t been published in F&SF; now it has. Raffalon and his friend Cascor the Discriminator have done what Raffalon does best (besides thieving): they’ve screwed up. To the extent that they now have to part ways and depart what’s left of the City of Wal. Raffalon heads for Syaskal with only the clothes on his back, a few useful small tools, and a small store of coins, but when he arrives at that city’s gates, which are closing for the night, the guards seem disinclined to let him in without depriving him of his money, so he heads out to find a safe place to sleep. The Old Forest outside the city doesn’t seem to offer anything safe—due to the various hungry beasties infesting it—so Raffalong explores around the city’s dry moat. He finds a rope and climbs to the top of the wall, only to find out it’s a trap set by the City Guards to snare unsuspecting thieves. Because Raffalon has an oversized nose (that he’s quite sensitive about), he has been chosen by the Society of Sternutative Sortilegers, who collect big-nosed people to be their oracles, thanks to a strange frog-like minor god. (Sternutation is sneezing. Sortilege is a kind of divination. You can guess how that works.) The tongue-in-cheek adventure proceeds with Raffalon’s usual amount of success, which is to say that he at least leaves town with his body intact. Quite amusing.
Kelly Barnhill’s “Thirty-Three Wicked Daughters” is, according to the blurb, Barnhill’s own version of the myth of Albina. I’m not quite sure what that is; Google wasn’t a lot of help. All I can say is that the story is written in “fairy-tale style,” and well written, but it goes on waaay too long for me. And in my opinion, it didn’t quite gell. However, I liked the writing style, and I’m sure a shorter story in the same style would work much better.
”Breath,” by Bruce McAllister, works both as SF and as horror. In a future time where genengineered “merchildren” have escaped the lab and are a plague upon the waters, will it be a commonplace to overlook their human part? A chilling little exercise, because we all know how easy it is for mankind to declare its own children as animals or vermin. I liked it, with reservations. (A word, Bruce: as an old Navy man, I can tell you that it’s pronounced “gunnel,” but it’s properly spelled “gunwale.”)
“The Fourth Trimester Is The Strangest,” by Rebecca Campbell, may be written from the author’s first-hand experience , according to the blurb. Childbirth—and the post-partum days or months, are very stressful times for both parents, but especially for the mother in many cases. Some women, like the person in this story, never quite recover. There’s a kind of Shirley Jackson feel to this story for me. Your mileage, as they say, might vary (YMMV), but I liked it. It’s the kind of story, I think, that the late Judy Merril might have picked for an anthology.
Pip Coen’s “Second Skin” is a deceiver. You think you know where it’s going, but I’ll bet you don’t. A long setup, then a chilling ending. The narrator is a simple farmer in an unnamed place, living a subsistence existence, more or less, until the speechless Saskia comes into his life. Well written.
“Apocalypse Considered Through A Helix Of Semiprecious Foods And Recipes,” by Tobias S. Buckell is, of course, riffing off the well-known Samuel R. Delaney story “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones”; not only the title, but both stories begin with a dairy farm. This one comprises five recipes: pancakes; Reubens (sandwiches); beef stew; “Walking Tacos”; and Buden (bread pudding). Each recipe fits with a different apocalypse: nuclear war; broken-down infrastructure; religious fanatacism; right-wing policies carried to extremes, etc., and it ends with a William Gibson quote. Somehow, in these days where politics hits you in the eyeballs at every turn (even for those of us who don’t live in the “Good Ol’ USA”), apocalyptic stories don’t seem to be a lot of fun anymore. The Gibson quote will tell you why. Well written story/recipe book!
Andy Dudak’s “The Abundance” refers to an abundance of life. As the story itself says, “The universe is big, brimming with life, worlds of it. More than enough to divvy up between shell-shocked agents of empire.” The empire here is called The Gaze; and I’m not exactly sure, after reading this several times, why it does what it does. It’s the kind of story that you go back to and say “Wha?” I’m sure I’ll figure it out after a couple more readings. Meanwhile, enjoy. For a first F&SF story, it’s pretty interesting!
”The Moss Kings,” by David Gullen, is set in a mythic land where once Kings and Princes ruled; a land just coming into the use of clockworks and precise measurements and new ways of seeing and saying things (“widdershins” giving way to “counterclockwise”). There is a war going on; it’s a very slow war between the Moss Kings and the remaining humans. The Moss Kings won the first part of the war and demanded a sacrifice; every once in a while, the humans have to give another. This is a very well-imagined slow battle, and I liked it a lot.
Before you comment on my column—and I really would like you to—remember that I don’t pretend to be a critic. Every opinion I give is as a sixty-plus year reader of the genre. Comment here, or on Facebook if you wish, but please do comment. All comments, good or bad, positive or negative, are welcome! (Just keep it polite, okay?) My opinion is my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!