The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2011, edited by Gordon van Gelder
Review by Joey O’Donnell
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction began publication in 1949 and has been in print since that time, making it one of the longest-running SF/F periodicals. It publishes stories of any type within the realms of speculative fiction. I’ve been reading it on-and-off for a number of years and thought it was time we started adding some periodical reviews here at SFFWorld. I hope to remain consistent with these and perhaps expand into several other periodicals over time.
The March/April 2011 issue contains 11 short stories/novellas, 1 poem, 4 columns, and two cartoons.
“Scatter My Ashes” by Alfred E. Cowdrey – Cowdrey has been a regular in the pages of F&SF over the last few years. His tales are supernatural shorts, usually focused around New Orleans. In this case, however, he takes his reader to the Pacific Northwest where a writer has been hired on to compile a family history. But, as with so many of these things, there are dark secrets hiding in the past. The setup is quick and thorough, and the story interesting. Unfortunately, the big reveal happens secondhand, so it loses some of its punch. There was a point the author could have added a few pages for a more interesting continuation of the story, but he left that road untraveled. In the end, interesting, but not Cowdrey’s strongest tale.
“A Pocketful of Faces” by Paul Di Filippo is a bizarre and clever little science fiction story focusing on property rights: in this case, the rights a person has to their own image. The story centers on a pair of detectives whose department focuses on face theft. There are both legal and black market face-growers who, given some DNA, are able to grow a replica face that can then be affixed to blank bodies. As with any commodity, there are licensed uses of these faces and there are black market dealers who steal DNA and grow faces without compensating the “property-holder.” This is a very interesting concept seemingly based on the recent legal issues between Facebook and its members over ownership of pictures placed on Facebook. Bonus points here for somehow including the phrase “the Stephen King Department of Justice Building” even though it wasn’t particularly pertinent to the story. Paul di Filippo is the author of a great many books and short story collections. (RECOMMENDED)
“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu is a somewhat moving story of a young biracial man and his mother and the relationship they had as he was growing up. Well-told, and interesting. It makes the age-old case that we should treasure what we have when we have it.
“The Evening and the Morning” by Sheila Finch – Sheila Finch has been writing “lingster” stories for over two decades, some of which were published in a 2007 collection, The Guild of the Xenolinguists. This story is an ending to what has come before, though it stands very well on its own. It’s set in a far future, after mankind has left Earth for the stars. The main character, an elderly man nicknamed Crow, belongs to the Guild of Xenolinguists, a group dedicated to the study and preservation of language. He is particularly interested in finding information on an Ancient species that some believe is responsible for sentient life in the galaxy. He and a friend set up a mission to Earth, a place no one has been in many hundreds of years. The perspectives of the characters manage to turn places and species on our planet into wondrous alien lands and creatures, with rich descriptions to flesh them out. Ultimately, Crow and his team make some discoveries about the fate of Earth and the ancient beings of legend. (RECOMMENDED)
“Night Gauntlet” by Don Webb, etc. – In 1935, a number of authors, including Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft, created a round-robin story called “The Challenge from Beyond.” Don Webb gathered a number of current authors to tackle “Night Gauntlet” in the same way. The by-line of this one credits six authors. The notes on the story don’t go into the mechanics of how this round-robin worked, but in some ways the story seems like it was written by six authors. Sentences are stuffed full of wordiness, sometimes to their benefit, other times to their detriment. The story itself is a tribute to the old Weird Tales, and it stays very grounded in that tradition. There’s complicated science gibberish leading to multiple dimensions with demonic precursors to humanity. All in all, a fun ride, even if it doesn’t really go anywhere new.
“Happy Ending 2.0” by James Patrick Kelly presents a snapshot of a couple who have grown apart over their time together. They make a trip to the place they initially connected, but a twist awaits them. This is a single-conceit story, so its success or failure rides solely on how well the central character conflict resonates with the reader.
“The Second Kalandar’s Tale” retold by Francis Marion Soty is a fabulous resetting of one of the tales from The Arabian Nights. The story tells of the adventures of a prince who comes into contact with beautiful princesses, an evil Ifrit, a generous sea captain, a kind king, and a powerful sorceress. The original tale is generously fleshed out with description and dialogue. This is the most traditional fantasy tale in the issue, and it is one of the strongest offerings this month. It is both well-told and very enjoyable. (RECOMMENDED)
“Bodyguard” by Karl Bunker gives us another far-future tale with many of the same trappings used in the earlier Sheila Finch story. This time, though, the main character is dedicated to saving an alien species from the impending supernova of their mother star. The story itself has fairly little to do with that and more to do with the relationship between the main character and his bodyguard, one of the indigenous, reptilian species he’s trying to save. Though even that is told between and around reminiscences of the main character’s past. Bunker has created an elusive little tale that is hard to categorize. It’s somewhere between a love story and an elegy with a bit of tragedy thrown into the mix.
“Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls” by Kali Wallace seems to chronicle a day in the life of a test subject. Though it’s never stated outright, we get the impression that our heroine isn’t necessarily human but instead some sort of intelligent plant. It’s difficult to understand what’s happening here, as the author has really connected with the main character’s confusion about her surroundings and situation. This story very successfully creates an uneasy, creepy vibe in the very best of ways. This is the most ambiguous story in the collection, with much room for conjecture and interpretation.
At twenty-four words, this paragraph is longer than the very short story about the last man on Earth contributed by Dixon Wragg called “Ping.”
While I don’t believe the editor selects stories based on particular themes for a given issue, sometimes a thread does seem to run through a number of stories. In the case of this issue, four of the stories deal directly with aging and death. “The Ifs of Time” very succinctly and poetically comments on these very issues. The main character is an immortal tasked with making sure time in the universe keeps moving. But time has been winding down and he must find the reason for it. He finds a small group of storytellers sharing tales, all of which have some sort of atypical behavior of time as a premise. Each of the tales is reminiscent of those contained in Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams and each is entertaining in its own right. Taken together inside of the framing story, though, they create a wonderful, melancholy story that perfectly captures and enhances the mood created through much of the issue. (RECOMMENDED)
In the end, I thought there were some very strong, enjoyable stories in this issue (those marked RECOMMENDED), but some of the others were a little flatter than usual. The four I enjoyed the most made up over half page count. The flatter ones tended to be on the short side, taking up no more than about 40 pages combined, so they didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment. All in all, I found this to be a very successful issue.
Also contained in this issue are book and movie reviews by Charles de Lint, James Sallis, and Lucius Shepard. More information on the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction can be found at their website, http://www.sfsite.com/fsf/
Review copyright Joey O’Donnell 2011