Lately, I’ve been wondering about Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine. When I was a teenager, this was my favorite SF magazine and I read it regularly. I couldn’t help but notice that in this year’s Hugo and Nebula slates, F&SF doesn’t have a single nomination for either award. It also seems to be the only magazine left that doesn’t allow online submissions. Clearly, something is going on — or more accurately, maybe some things aren’t going on.
The May/June 2014 issue was part of the swag bag at the Nebula weekend, and I opened up mine with great curiosity. Factoring in the fact that short fiction is not my first love, I still have to say that overall I was disappointed.
One thing I’ve always liked about F&SF was their willingness to run novellas; a “longer form” short story, if you will. They also have a category called novelet, which seems to be over 10,000 words up to about 25,000. The issue had one novella, three novelets and 5 short stories.
Containment Zone; a Seastead Story by Naomi Kritzer, a novelet, was my favorite of the magazine. Floating city-states made of lashed together rafts and boats and been done and redone but Kritzer still created an interesting world and an interesting problem. Rebecca, the main character, has great energy and a great voice. When her mysterious, aloof father drops her off in a neighboring sector from their own, and then disappears, Rebecca soon learns that Seastead is facing a virus. With the help of her friend, a host on Seastead’s version of public access cable and a group called The Alpha Dogs, Rebecca is able to find and distribute a small amount of an experimental cure. The symptoms of the virus, a job-related OCD, was interesting and unusual. The story was fast-paced and the Alpha Dogs rock!
The Shadow in the Corner, by Jonathan Andrew Sheen is a perfectly creepy Lovecraftian pastiche.
The Memory Cage, by Tim Sullivan, took an awfully long walk around the park to address, basically, unfinished business when loved ones die, and forgiveness. The story had some wonderful science fiction elements that were not integrated into the story and thus looked like clever trappings around the tale of a man trying to come to grips with his father’s suicide.
Presidential Cryptotrivia, by Oliver Buckram, springboards off of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter to present the reader with a nice tray of “things you never knew” about presidents. Thomas Jefferson trapped John Adams in a dumbwaiter. Several years later, Adams escaped and ran again under the “patently obvious alias” John Q Adams. Grover Cleveland, we learn, was America’s first Muppet president. It’s fun, and most of them are funny, but I question whether it’s a story.
Rooksnight was written my Marc Laidlaw. I met Marc a few times in San Francisco and it’s always nice to see him in print again. Gorlen is a bard, a bard with one hand made of gargoyle stone, and his partner Spar is a gargoyle through and through. The two of them are pressed into the service of a group of very strange knights on a quest for treasure. The story is a traditional second-world fantasy, beautifully written and quite witty, but it went on too long for the plot it had. I loved the rooks.
Alyssa Wong contributes a dark fantasy story called The Fisher Queen, about a family of mermaid hungers in the Mekong River, predictable but very well written.
Pavel Amnuel is a Russian living in the US, who provided the issue’s reprint, (translated by Anatoly Belilovsky), White Curtain. Two scientists, one, Dima, a theoretician and Oleg, the other, a practical scientist working on the application of a theory, meet after several years apart, drawn together by the death of the woman they both loved. Irina died of brain cancer. I liked the relationship between the two men and the discussion of theory versus practice, but the dead woman seemed way too familiar. Irina was a scientist herself, apparently, but we never hear or read anything about her contributions. Once again, a woman exists only in a story to be the thing that brings two men together. Sigh. At the end the story asks an interesting question about love and sacrifice.
It’s a tossup about which story I liked least; Bartleby the Scavenger, by Katie Boyer or The End of the Silk Road, by David D. Levine. Okay, I’m going to have to go with Bartleby for reasons I’ll cover in a minute. The End of the Silk Road is one of a series of stories set in a particular universe, where humans developed interplanetary travel much earlier (maybe as soon as the end of the 19th century) and World War I was fought on other planets than just earth. Apparently the “sides” of that war were the same though, and our main character, a private detective in the late 1930s, doesn’t like Germans. This will become important when he flies to Venus, which has been colonized by humans, to solve a mystery for a man he doesn’t like, whose wife was the PI’s first love. I might have liked this “solar system noir” story better if I knew the background of the world-building, but having massive technological changes that had no impact on social systems is unbelievable to me. Women are “dames” in this story, they have “gams” instead of legs. The main character carries a “gat” not a gun. I think this is all meant to be fun. I did not understand, however, just how we survive on Venus. Worst of all, though, Levine, who is obviously a fan of the famous noir-detective writers (Chandler and Hammett for instance) follows the conventions slavishly, and I could predict every plot point. There was not a single twist. I will say that I am particularly sensitive to this because plots are my weak point and mine tend to be very conventional. I do not think every single action is predictable though. This kind of writing does not create suspense, it breeds disrespect for the main character, a first-person narrator who is too stupid to see what’s going on until it’s happening.
The best thing about Bartleby the Scavenger is the title, and the second-best thing is the story behind the story. Boyer actually had a student in one of her classes who called Melville’s story by that name. That’s pretty hilarious. The novella, though, left me twitching with frustration. This plot only worked if you knew the story of Melville’s plot, and even then, it’s questionable. In the very near future, in the southeast United States, political tension between the “Dems” and the “Pubs” flared into actual warfare with bombs and strafing. The little village of the Brook, a suburb, we assume, of Atlanta, remains pretty much unscathed and sets up its own government. There is a governing council and a mayor, a former sorority girl named Peighton. The narrator, who is just called Boss, is nearing the end of his life and telling the story of how he supported Peighton at first and what that support has cost him. Boss ran a crew of scavengers who drove into the ruins of Atlanta each day and brought back useful material. One day a strange man named Bartleby joins the crew. At first Bartleby is a great scavenger, but when ordered by Boss to help the others sort material at the end of the day, he refuses, saying casually, “No thanks, I’m good.” Bartleby only does what he wants, and he wants less and less as the story progresses. The rest of the crew gets angry at first, but soon they are each affected by Bartleby’s manner in some way. This is a risk, though, because coming in under quota gives the villainous Peighton an opportunity for punishments like public flogging and worse. There is no motivation for Peighton, unless it’s that power corrupts. When Boss can no longer cover up Bartleby’s behavior he makes a fateful decision.
I’ll confess that timing may have worked against this story for me. Last week was not the week to be reading a story about “evil sorority sisters.” In the state where I live a man killed several of them because they wouldn’t go out with him. More to the point of the story though, Peighton is simply evil with no real reason given. It isn’t completely clear just how she manages to get the power she wields, although the story is supposed to be a case in point. (“See how I caved in to her? That’s how she got power.”) The desire to pay homage to Melville’s story (even to the names of the scavenge crew) hampered the development of a story that could have been really interesting.
And yes, I do know that homage to Melville was part of the point, okay? I’m saying it didn’t work.
The magazine had its usual columns and they were okay.
This may just be a weak issue of the magazine, but the sameness and predictability of certain stories worries me. I feel like I’ve read these stories before, in the 1980s. Bartleby in particular gave me an unpleasant sense of deja vu; political things are bad, now we’ll take them to the extreme badness! Hah, we’re cut off from any civilizing force and we will get drunk with power! Maybe I’m just confusing Peighton with that guy on The Walking Dead, but this seems so familiar and a little stale.
I did notice, on page 215, an announcement that the magazine will have a Guest Editor for the next issue. C.C. Finlay chose the stories. That one might be worth buying, just to see if there is any appreciable difference.