How broken is our postal system? I received my May/June Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction about two weeks ago. Before I’d even begun reading it… I received my March/April copy. Yes, my copy came almost two months late, and AFTER the issue that followed it.
Y’all, the system is a MESS. There’s no reason for things to take this long. Except that it was intentionally broken last year in support of a candidate for president so eager to win he’d destroy an institution that has provided solid, reliable service for over a century. You can’t have that if you’re a Republican politician. Their message is based entirely on three platforms: guns are good; abortion is bad; and all government is evil. Any aspect of government that shows competency must be stamped out. And they’ve worked very hard to do so with the postal service since 2006.
Let’s hope Biden’s new appointees quickly remove DeJoy and restore the post office to the competency it once had before the GOP got their grubby, greedy, government hating mitts on it and broke it.
That rant over… it’s time for reviews… and there is MUCH to love in this (late arriving) issue of F&SF, including some of my favorite authors…
Note: this is new editor Sheree Renée Thomas‘ first issue, and it’s a hella good one.
Crazy Beautiful, by Cat Rambo – This is one of those stories that starts out being completely confusing to me. A series of seemingly unrelated messages, transcripts, emails, and descriptions. But stick with it, because soon enough the random begins to present a cohesive vision and the story unwinds beautifully through these disparate and odd selections, which are not nearly as random as they first seemed. I was enchanted by the choice of storytelling format here, which reveals an author at the top of her game. When art and artificial intelligence clash, what is born from the union will be much more than anyone expected, and possibly more beautiful, too. It’s really a wonderful way to tackle the idea of the commodification and privatization of art. Toss a little Skynet at the art world and watch the blossoming havoc.
The Music of the Siphorophenes, by C. L. Polk – I fell hard for the author’s novel, Witchmark, which is a fantastic alternate history fantasy work. I have yet to read the followups, but look forward to doing so soon. In the meantime, they have given us here a story of alien contact that is reminiscent to me of the best of what Star Trek could be. Alien life that is delightfully alien, and how they interact with humanity in all its aspects, both good and bad. While not strictly a “first contact” story, in many ways it’s humanity’s first connection with the Siphorophenes of the title, and proves to be wonderfully and deeply emotional for all.
The Bletted Woman, by Rebecca Campbell – I’ve read some great fiction lately about aging and death, much of it in the pages of this magazine. But this may be the most original, and most deeply disturbing (and I mean that as a compliment). This can almost be read as body horror, and indeed the transformation our protagonist goes through had me seriously creeped out. But it’s far more than that, a deep examination of our feelings of uselessness at the end of our lives, the changes our bodies go through as well as our minds, the burdens we carry, and how our memories carry on in others. Is there an afterlife? In this story, there is, and I’m still pondering everything that meant. This story is so amazingly GOOD y’all! And, oh yeah… creepy beautiful. Twelve hours later, I’m dwelling on the gorgeous writing and the depths of meaning.
Mannikin, by Madelaine E. Robbins – This issue seems eager to deliver stories told in a variety of formats. Here, we get a tale that reads more like an older fairy tale. And there is certainly plenty of magic in the form of witches and river gods. Given the style, the story has more of a tendency to keep readers at arms length, providing less emotional impact to the outcomes for the protagonist and their mom. That weighed on me as I finished my read, because I wanted to be engaged in Bire’s story and the choices their mom made to protect them. I wanted to relish the way male gender was submerged beneath female form, the ramifications of that, how it influenced their growth and the decisions they would make when their town was imperiled. In particular, how they would react if the ruse ever was revealed given they, themselves, were subsumed by the illusion. Yet it never seemed to be more than a plot device, which ultimately proved to be a little bit of a let down. Still a good, enjoyable read, though, for what it was.
Our Peaceful Morning, by Nick Wolven – My wife and I have running gags for our pets. Cooper, our golden retriever, plays the eager but overly-neurotic clown, with a voice like the character of Doug from Up!. Our cats speak with outrageous French accents and are aloof and mocking. When I read this story, I had to wonder if the author had spent any time with us. In this near future world, pets have been granted consciousness and voices. With that, inevitably, comes the realization that they’ve been treated as. . .well. . .far lesser than they would like. And the ability to think, reason, and agitate for their rights is spreading quickly to all manner of animals. The surreal becomes hysterical at times as the revolution begins, but ultimately this is a story about one man’s love for his cat, something any pet owner can admire.
In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi, by Molly Tanzer – Lost things that are rediscovered are a trope all on their own (or perhaps I’m misremembering something). This story is a bit meta, in that the author herself thought she once knew about a story with the title given here. Since she could never find it, she wrote it. We wind up with a bit of story inception in this novelette, with the framing overlaying a fiction about itself, which in turns overlays the original story of Ibn Ghazi. This is the tale of a reclusive alchemist famed for his truth potion, as well as a surreal story where the author and the narrative begin to blend into each other by the end. Not my favorite story of the issue, but certainly an intriguing idea to use as scaffolding for a work and an enjoyable read.
Minstrel Boy Howling at the Moon, by Morris Allen – I’ve said in the past how often a story’s voice can carry the narrative. This one is full of voice that tugs it along and gives it a unique quality that stands out in this issue. Its southwest flavor mingles with a particular note of native peoples that, at first, worried me might shade into appropriation. But the author deftly calls that out within the story and undermines those concerns. We get a wonderful mix of cultural story traditions tossed into the slow burn of people who feel stuck in the places where they’ve landed. Places where there’s no real future, and time moves with agonizing slowness. The protagonist’s desire to better themselves and find a way out leads to the unreal becoming real. This delightful story ends not with a happily ever after, but with a hope for a brighter future. I dug it.
Speak to the Moon, by Marie Brennan – I only know a little about the Japanese myth that gives this story it’s background. But a reader can easily learn enough from this addition to the original story, which updates the tale with modern touches and yet still finds its footing in the traditional frames of reference and formal mannerisms. It has me digging back into those old stories to refresh my memory, which is what I love about the sort of writing that builds the old into something new. And we definitely have a lot of old here to go with the new. The Japanese space program might want to reconsider its selection process if the results are going to wind up like this. Really enjoyed this story, which mines some old tropes about immortality, while surprising me repeatedly.
Jack-in-the-Box, by Robin Furth – From first contact, to artistic AI, to revolutionary cats. Now we get a darkly creepy horror story set in a house that every writer friend I know would love to visit. This is in some ways a haunted house story, although the house isn’t haunted by anything more than the dark memory of its former owner and the grandson he’s left behind, a scarily precocious and somewhat twisted boy (made so by his grandfather it seems). I caught a very gothic vibe to this tale, and it worked well with the main thread of the plot. While the main character initially comes across as quite passive, she’s still likeable and ultimately is the focal point that the story hinges on. The house itself is as much a character as anyone else, but everyone IS a character indeed, unique and written with sparkling attention to detail. I’m not a huge fan of these types of horror stories, but this tale of the revelations of a dead man’s dark secrets held me fast from beginning to end.
Character, by Harry Turtledove – I’ve enjoyed Harry Turtledove’s writing since I first read Guns of the South decades ago. I’m particularly fond of The House of Daniel, a mashup of 1930’s road traveling baseball teams, the great depression, and vampires/zombies. Weird book! But this story is nothing like his usual alt-history novels. What would it be like if the character in a story knew they were a character in a story and tried to have some agency despite the wishes of the (as they put it) idiot writing their life? I loved the voice of the oft-suffering “character” who is put through his paces, and forced to do what the author wishes instead of what they want. The confusion of waking and finding everything about you has changed after a re-write was a neat touch. There’s even a really interesting story going on around the narrator, based on a secondary character from Peter Beagle’s book, The Folk of the Air, which the author acknowledges they are paying tribute to. Ultimately, though, it’s a bit too meta for my tastes. As much as I enjoyed this story, I would have liked it more without the scaffolding used to frame it.
The Pizza Boy, by Meg Elison – the last story of the issue is such a strangely touching one. I admit, I had to sleep on this one to decide how much I liked it, but it’s grown on me since I first read it. Set in some future in some other place, we have the story of a man who operates a space ship and whose entire focus in life is providing the very best pizza to whomever orders it, no matter which side of a galactic war they are on. There are long, touching descriptions of the lengths he – and his father and mother before him – go to in order to ensure the food is the very best it can be and his service unquestionable. I loved the different ingredients and how they’ve had to find new supplies of each of their precious items over the years as the war depletes and destroys the sources they rely on. For me this story was a tribute to the critical workers we’ve branded “heroes” while we pay them shit wages and jam them back into dangerous jobs without benefits, stripping them of their health and their dignity, all so we can get a $4.99 latte. In this case, the pizza boy is quite literally a hero, putting his life on the line for his mission. Thank you Meg for giving us this story. I will forever have a soft spot in my heart for the underpaid and downtrodden workers.
Along with the stories, we get articles in the usual Departments, including Books from Charles de Lint and Michelle West, Television from David J. Skal, and Science from Jerry Oltion. We also get a new Department called By the Numbers with an article from the always excellent Arley Sorg.
The magazine is in good hands, and this is a fantastic issue.