By some miracle (I blame Star Trek’s ubiquitous temporal anomalies), my newest issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction arrived early this time. But of course, it came right before the election, and I’ve been having trouble tearing myself away from the news. The long vote count took it’s toll, and now it’s the waiting game to see how the court cases launched by Dippy McPresidentShitHeel play out. I’m in need of the distraction provided by some good stories, but have found it hard to read.
I’ve seen a lot of elections in my life time. The earliest I remember is Carter versus Mondale in 1976. That was fourth grade for me, and we held debates and a mock vote. I’ve been tuned in ever since, watching Reagan get elected in ’80, then re-elected in ’84, before I could finally cast my first votes in ’88. But there’s never been an election like this, or a candidate and President like Donnie “Dipshit” Trump. Hate me if you like, but I view the man as a plague on America, and did long before he ran for office. He’s everything that’s worst about our country: racist, sexist, greedy, narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, bloviating, grifting, shifty, unethical, sleazy, and a downright criminal who has hidden behind the skirts of corporate law. He’s been the worst president of my lifetime, but that’s only because I was too young to really remember Nixon.
Phew. Sorry about that, had to vent. By the time I finish this post, it’ll be over. I hope it will. I might vent more then. But for now, on to the reviews…
The Bahrain Underground Bazaar, by Nadia Afifi – There are many fine stories that deal with how we approach death, but none I’ve read recently that are as thought provoking as this. In a future middle east, people trade in the recorded memories of others. Some come for adventures they will never experience; some come for sexual gratification or violence; but our protagonist is there to experience death in all its many forms. The story deals evenly with both the dark aspects of living vicariously through another person’s most painful moments, as well as how we respond to and handle the specter of death that looms over each of us. There is never a way to stop death from arriving, but I very much love how the author tries to guide us to an understanding that death is only one more part of a longer, sometimes painful journey. Excellent story.
La Regina Ratto, by Nick DiChario – I love Pixar films, including the one about the rat who becomes a chef. And at first, this darkly humorous story brought that movie to mind. I was both enchanted by the idea of the protagonist shacking up with three talking rats as I was uncomfortable with the direction the narrative took as the story progressed. It’s hard watching a protagonist with good intentions being ground down by the decisions of others, but the author allowed him just enough agency that the story kept its forward momentum, though a few times I felt it languished too long in a place of hopelessness. In the end, I felt sad and sorry for our poor man, but there was a delightful playfulness to this entry despite the tragedy of his tale (or maybe tail).
How to Burn Down the Hinterlands, by Lyndsie Manusos – There are damsels in distress, and there are strong female characters, and then there is this story by Ms. Manusos that blows you away with a character who is all of those things and none of them. A woman whose mother is taken from her and killed for daring to make a weapon too powerful grows up trying to straddle the line between being her mother’s daughter, and yet acceptable to those who killed her. It presents such an engaging and brokenly perfect main character that I fell in love with it from start to finish. The writing is beautiful, the descriptions glorious, and all of the characters inhabit this world and fill it with their own needs while never overshadowing our protagonist. The conclusion brought me such joy. I can’t recommend this one enough, it’s everything you want in a tale of revenge.
The Glooms, by Matthew Hughes – This is another one of those serial stories that I’ve missed the previous entries for. In many ways, it’s a very typical high fantasy tale, though here we’re focused on a wizard’s former henchman instead of the wizards themselves. Frankly, I appreciated that, because Baldemar is a very sympathetic character while also being a very clever one, despite his lack of any formal powers. That helps raise the stakes for the reader and lets us appreciate his wits in combination with his nice guy persona. Here we get a story of how, when you run from trouble, sometimes you run into a little luck as well. As long as you treat people with respect and courtesy, that is.
The Homestake Project, by Cylin Busby – this rather short, short story takes place almost entirely in an active mine buried miles deep beneath the earth. It creates a rather foreboding sense of dread – all that rock hovering above your head – that permeates the narrative. That turns out to be the right ambience for what is a creepy tale bordering on straight up horror. Digging for unexpected life forms in places where you don’t normally expect them can have consequences, not all of them the ones you might have hoped for. I felt this story suffered a little from its shortness, though, and could have used a few more pages to fully breathe.
Least Weird Thing of All, by Beth Cato – A charming little poem that you need to read and enjoy. Light switches can turn on and off a lot of things.
On Vapor, Which the Night Condenses, by Gregor Hartmann – This is the second of the Philippa Song stories by the author that I’ve read and I really enjoy the noir in space aesthetic of the series. The world building is always fascinating, and the plots hinge on unexpected yet entirely appropriate future technology. Detective Song presents as a intriguing character who shows all the best qualities of a great detective, able to discern patterns where others might miss them while remaining wonderfully human and down to earth herself. Here our story revolves around the power of scent and the usual emotional need we all have to be loved and desired. Especially us artists.
The Silent Partner, by Theodore McCombs – There is science fiction, and there is fantasy, and there is something that’s nothing like either. Maybe it’s a little bit of horror, or slipstream, but this story definitely channels that “something” and then tosses it in your face like a brick, unsettling and deliciously uncomforting. Our protagonist presents as a reseller of furniture he picks up from the estate of older people with money problems, which he resells for profit. Then it takes a left turn somewhere near Albuquerque and it becomes a strange tale with tinges of some of the best Stephen King stories, like Lawn Mower Man, where reality is twisted and bent and nothing is exactly what it seems. I’m still not entirely sure what happened within these pages, but I am sure I liked the hole this plot dragged me down. Highly recommend.
Mended, by Mary Soon Lee – Another short poem, this one about soldiers returning home, mended by the aliens who had captured them, and what the result might be. I loved it.
Space Isn’t Like in the Vids, by Beth Cato – Ms. Cato’s second poem in this issue, reminds us that media doesn’t always present to us the truth of reality, and ends on a sadly poignant note. My favorite poem of the issue in fact.
A Tale of Two Witches, by Albert E. Cowdrey – This story starts out deliciously entertaining as most great haunted house stories do. Instead of being scared away, though, our protagonist has her own psychic powers and understands what’s going on. In fact, it’s the key to unlocking a mystery that has weighed on her mind, and a really great starting point for weird fiction. I found the ending charming as well, but in between the start and the finish, the story takes a long detour into a conversational cul de sac that really slowed down the narrative and left my mind wandering. Come for the beginning, stay through to the end, though, it’s worth it.
A Civilized and Orderly Zombie Apocalypse Per School Regulations, by Sarina Dore – This utterly delightful and darkly comedic story takes us through a day in the life of a teacher, her middle grade class, and their reaction when the zombie apocalypse reaches their school. The author mixes our fears of school shootings and the active shooter alerts that have become a dark blotch on modern education with an upbeat teacher who knows exactly all the right things to do and has taught her students well. I absolutely loved this story from the cheery beginning right through to the macabre ending. Sometimes, no matter how hard you drill, the best you can do is still not enough. Keep calm and soldier on.
Skipping Stones in the Dark, by Amman Sabet – This story is told entirely from the perspective of a generational ship AI traveling the stars to find a new world to colonize. While I loved the concepts being played with her – the plot revolves around an examination of how much individuality is too much given the needs of the ship and the other humans, and how to deal with those who take their individuality too far – the story seemed a bit too remote at times, keeping us at arms length from the AI’s core emotions. Choices are made, but even the best lain plans of a super computer can fail when humanity is involved, and it might have been more interesting to dig into that a little more at the end.
All in all, a fine issue. There are some real gems in here, and I can say without a doubt that How to Burn Down the Hinterlands is going on my list of stories for next year’s award nominations.
Note: shortly after I began this post, C. C. Finlay announced he will be leaving Fantasy & Science Fiction at the end of this year, to be replaced by Sheree Renée Thomas starting with the Jan/Feb 2021 issue. I wish Charlie all success in whatever comes next, and look forward to seeing what new directions Sheree will bring to the magazine. Thanks for many great years of reading pleasure, Charlie! But now I’m going to have to revamp my writer’s goals to “sell a story to Sheree Renée Thomas.” 😎