I’ve been meaning to get around to doing these on a regular basis. Now seems as good a time as any, because why not. We’re still living in pandemic land, and while my own attempts at publishing are stagnant at the moment, it’s also great to keep up with the awesome stuff that is being put out. I don’t see a ton of reviews of F&SF, so it felt to me this would be the right magazine to focus on. I will add others in the future, and will focus on smaller press that get less attention, such as Translunar or Apparition Lit.
My issue of F&SF arrived right at the end of September. It looks like it’ll probably take me two to three weeks to get through an issue (I have other readings to get to, plus my full-time job, plus my own writing), so these should come about three weeks after I receive the hard copy. With post office delays, that probably means near the end of the current issue’s print period, but it is what it is.
On to the reviews! (note: I’ll use the following formatting for now, but reserve the right to change things up as I go along, perhaps highlighting in some way my favorite stories of an issue)
The Shadows of Alexandrium, by David Gerrold – The issue’s lead off novelette started off slowly, but it quickly turned into a deeply engaging and often humorous examination of the philosophies of reality, infinity, being, creation, nothingness and more. The author picked a fine focal character in the Proctor who guides visitors through a library (but it’s not a library) of infinite stuff (but it’s not simply stuff). There’s even a subtle dig at a current world leader, which made me giggle. All in all, a deeply satisfying and fun read and I highly recommend it. It’s a great example of how a specific voice can propel and carry a narrative.
Weeper, by Marc Laidlaw – This is my first experience with Marc Laidlaw’s stories set in the world of the bard, Gorlen Vizenfirthe, and the gargoyle, Spar, though they have an extensive history preceding this one. I’m not sure if I would classify this story as fantasy, or as post-apocalyptic science fiction. Certainly it felt like both at various times, with a fantasy-like technology level and one of the characters being described as a gargoyle, while other aspects make it feel as though these are a people who have forgotten about technology and science. Ultimately categorizing it isn’t necessary. This is an interesting take on the first contact trope that revels in its own novelty, and is short but quite genuinely scarily sweet. Sometimes pulling down a falling star provides much, much more than you would wish upon it, and people would do well to remember that. Also, kids can be really mouthy and obnoxious. Ahem.
Do AIs Dream of Perfect Games, by Angie Peng – I’ve never been the most devoted of baseball fans, but I understand the love of sports, and I understand the obsession people have with their favorite players. And then there are the moments that define a singular game for generations. In this story, the author deftly ties such a sporting moment – the perfect game – with a fan’s devotion for her favorite player, and then wraps it up in a ball of existential Platonic shadow-on-the-cave-wall revelations that changes everything the narrator thought they knew about themselves and their reality. While the questions being asked aren’t new, the connection of surreal metaphysics to the quite real fanaticism of sports is delicious. After how, how much does a sport really matter to the world, despite those singular moments of joy? And what if it meant something FAR more than we experience?
Of Them All, by Leah Cypess – The author of this novella reaches back for a common and oft used fantasy trope: the fairy being who blesses a child upon their birth. But while the trope may be an old one, the treatment here is far from what I expected and plays with its fantasy concepts like they’re made of silly putty. Sometimes gifts can also be a curse, and the author treads a deft line in contemplating issues of beauty, acceptance, love, family, and power. I don’t want to give away the crux of the plot by saying too much, but it was a beautiful story that grounded itself in the strong roots of common fantasy concepts while holding up a mirror to themes of self-worth that surround us on a daily basis. Thumbs up as well for ALMOST leaving us hanging at the end, and then not quite. Highly recommend.
The Martian Water War: Notes Found in an Airlock, by Peter Gleick – This is a rather straightforward and very short piece postulating the results of colonization on Mars, and pondering what might happen if we carry all of our current baggage of civilization with us. Set up as a single journal entry bracketed by the notes of those who found it, its strength rests more on the positive ending rather than the few short pages of text itself, which a few times started to feel more like an info dump than it needed to. Sometimes, it’s nice to hope that we’ll do more than continue the same dumb crap we’ve always done as we expand out beyond our own atmosphere.
Little and Less, by Ashley Blooms – This is a sad and troubling story that is beautiful in its darkness. I struggle these days with stories filled with grim realities, even realistic ones. But the author gives us a strong, if lonely, protagonist to root for, a girl who is profoundly compassionate, and then reveals to us gradually the depth of her struggles. The ending was hard to read for me for reasons I can’t and won’t explain beyond stating “I’m a dad with three sons, and I remember when they were little,” but I found myself wanting to know more about what happened next, and more about how the world got to where it arrived at by the time of this tale, and those are always good things for a story to do.
The Writing of Science Fiction, by Timons Esaias – I’m not sure if I’ll review the poetry in each issue. It’s not really my wheelhouse and I feel a bit out of my depth doing so. But I liked this charming little entry, for what it’s worth.
My Name Was Tom, by Tim Powers – I have been reading short stories for a long, long time. Some of the first “Year’s Best” anthologies I bought were back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and I was reading issues of Omni and Asimov’s long before that. Over years, you grow to note tonal changes in fiction, and trust me, this is all going somewhere, I promise. This particularly novelette about an impossible ship full of confused passengers, though fairly new (2018), very much reminded me of a top notch piece of fiction from those earlier years. Long and dreamy passages filled with beautiful descriptions, and a tale that unravels one thread at a time to reveal a mystery that grows deeper with each page, while never really resolving any of the central story themes. I was at once transported back to an earlier time in my life, and have to admit I very much enjoyed this story for that quality as much as the revealing thought processes it guided me through. Highly recommend.
The Cry of Evening Birds, by James Sallis – There is a legend about the world’s shortest story which I’ve heard repeated many times. Whether or not it was truly written by the famous author said to have penned those six powerful words, the story itself gets an update here in a longer – though still heart-achingly brief by short story standards – and beautifully haunting version set in some future or alternate world where the person who you are today might not be the person you are tomorrow. And it leaves us to wonder whether or not that’s a good thing, or even if it could be considered a mercy. I loved this story very much, both for its strangely poignant asides as for leaving us to decide the moral question at its heart for ourselves.
The Dog and the Ferryman, by Brian Trent – It is giving away nothing to point out this is a story that features a dog, and as such it is automatically great and good and all things that we as human beings should love. The author gives us a lovely, bittersweet story about the future, mingling it with the mythology of the past, and presents a dog so wonderful that he gives Doug from Pixar’s Up! a run for his money. Come for the ferryman, but absolutely stay for Buster, who is GOOD. I laughed, I cried, I very much enjoyed this offering. Kudos, Buster!
This World is Made for Monsters, by M. Rickert – a science fiction story set firmly in the roots of rural America, complete with corn and festivals, this very short story presented a strong connection to “reality” that I admired. All of the tiny details that went into describing the setting and the people create an instant recognition for anyone who has lived in a small town anywhere in America and remembers what it’s like waiting for the yearly summer festival to come. The ending left me a little puzzled, though, and it didn’t feel like it meshed entirely with the mood of the rest of the piece, though on re-read I felt there might be more connective tissue I’d overlooked the first time through.
The Fairy Egg, by R. S. Benedict – the issue ends with this novelette, and at first I thought it would end poorly. But the longer I read this piece, the more I came to realize what a deft combination of fairy folklore and lower class ideals it presented. It deconstructs some of our capitalist attitudes, examines class structure in modern society, underscores a certain male-rights navel gazing movement that is incredibly destructive, and presents a truly horrifying downward spiral for the female protagonist that echoes stories we hear in the news on an alarmingly regular basis. And then the author tosses in real magic and an ending that might be considered uplifting, or could be considered the final conclusions to the crash of our protagonist depending on how you wish to interpret the final scenes (I went with positive, personally). In the end, I found it a story I couldn’t put down until I’d finished it. I simply had to know what would happen. Excellent read.
Along with the stories, there are the usual departments with non-fiction offerings. I found Science: The Science of Printing particularly interesting to read.
Overall, I’d give this issue 8 out of 10 pieces of Reynolds aluminum foil. A good issue for my first review. Let me know what you think in the comments below!