Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2011 – Edited by Gordon van Gelder
Reviewed by Joey O’Donnell
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. This is our third review of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
The July/August issue contains 9 short stories, 5 columns, and a number of cartoons. As sometimes happens with an issue, there seems to be a recurring theme this month: Many of the stories either deal directly or indirectly with the loss of family members or loved ones.
In his first F&SF story in over a decade Peter David tells us of “Bronsky’s Dates With Death”. Bronsky suffers from a condition which forces him to speak honestly of anything that comes to mind. As he ages, he becomes more and more focused on his death, which he doesn’t fear. In time, Death invites him to a meeting where he informs Bronsky that his frank candidness about his inevitable death is preventing it. Death can’t work when he’s his coming is both expected and welcomed. Bronsky and Death have a number of meetings over the course of the story. In his way, Bronsky speaks frankly about these meetings to his wife and daughter, who become understandably concerned for him. These various encounters with an exasperated death are quite funny. Between all that are the very real concerns Bronsky’s wife and daughter have for his health. In the end David turns all the humor around and gives us a heartfelt finish where everyone gets what he or she wants or deserves.
The second story of the issue is brought to us by a second well-published Peter, this time Peter S. Beagle. Beagle’s “The Way It Works Out and All” features former F&SF editor Avram Davidson (1962-1964) as one of the main characters. The story is narrated by Beagle, himself, and it tells of a series of mysterious postcards mailed by Davidson from various places on the globe on consecutive days. Beagle later has a chance encounter with Davidson on the streets of New York which kicks off a multidimensional romp through someplace called the Overneath, a sort of subway hub for the world. Editor van Gelder’s notes to the story assures readers that the story captures the quirky essence of Avram Davidson to a T. Even for those of us who know no better, though, he makes for a very entertaining character. Aside from that picture of an editor and the basic conceit of the story, though, there’s not much here to sink one’s teeth into.
Rob Chilson’s Less Stately Mansions is an old-fashioned family struggle set against the backdrop of a future where man is leaving Earth for the stars. Jacob has been tending his farmland for his entire life, while most of his family has moved off to less agrarian pursuits. When the government offers to buy farmland from people so that they can leave Earth, his family brings him up on charges of incompetence, on the basis that he’s too sentimental. He’s torn between losing has family or losing the life he’s known.
The cover story of the issue, Robert Reed’s “The Ants of Flanders”, is a novella in five parts. It details the events of an invasion from space by two rival powers, one set on taking over life on Earth and the other intent on saving it. This is a much longer format for Robert Reed than we’ve seen in recent issues, but he manages to keep things at least as interesting on a conceptual level as his shorter works. Over the five chapters of this short Reed very quickly expands from the small scale of a few townspeople going to great effort to save a wounded alien to galaxy rending struggles. While the human characters are mostly a bit flat in this one, the deficiency is more than compensated by the pacing and ideas generated over the course of the story. RECOMMENDED.
“Hair” by Joan Aiken (1924-2004) is a posthumously published story of a young man who has recently met a girl, married her, and lost her in a very short time. He is taking a lock of her hair back to her mother. This is more a sketch of a person’s history than a story with much in the way of plot or concept. This definitely feels like it would have been more at home in a collection from half a century ago.
Steven Saylor makes his return to F&SF‘s pages after a 25-year hiatus with “The Witch of Corinth”. Over the course of the past two and a half decades, he’s been publishing books set in Roman times featuring a mystery-solving protagonist named Gordianus. “Witch” features the same character as he and a traveling companion travel the world seeking out the seven wonders. As the title implies, this story brings them to Corinth some time after it had been destroyed by the Romans. On the way, they run into a group of Romans also heading to the ruins. Later that night, back at the inn, the Romans all end up dead, leaving Gordianus to solve the mystery of their deaths. The setting here is so low-magic that we have to take the Witch’s word that it’s actually happening. While the historical aspects of this story are not all-pervasive and Saylor won’t belabor readers with the trivia of Roman life, there’s still a unique feel to this work that sets it aside from much other fantasy set in the past, either in the real or secondary world. This story was a pleasure to read. RECOMMENDED.
“Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things” by Richard Boews has my favorite setup of the issue. Aside from a few sections which set various scenes, the story is told through only a single side of various conversations. Our title character is a knight in a dreamlike Avalon where he occasionally runs into and has conversations with King Arthur’s knights. He explains to us that he feels he is there to spread discontent and strife between the other knights. This story is both atmospheric and engaging if a little thin on plot. It has an impressionistic, watercolor tone to it that makes a lovely contrast to the very real feel of the rest of the issue. RECOMMENDED.
“Someone Like You” by Michael Alexander is a time travel story of two siblings, and a number of murders. Over the course of the story, the siblings’ history is rewritten a few times based on their actions. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything terribly interesting about this one.
The issue closes with KJ Kabza’s “The Ramshead Algorithm”, the tale of a wealthy dandy with a magical secret. When the hedge maze outside of his rich father’s house is set to be demolished, Ramshead must go to extreme measures to save it, as it is a source of power for him, a gateway to other dimensions. This is a well-structured, entertaining romp with a good sense of conflict and character development. The magic system here is interesting and there are very real implications to Ramshead’s family if his father succeeds in destroying the hedge maze. RECOMMENDED.
Also contained in this issue are book and movie reviews by Charles de Lint, Elizabeth Hand, and Lucius Shepard. Paul Di Filippo has a very entertaining short chronicling a fictional history of the collapse of the creativity market (where books movies, and music fail as a commodity might). There’s also an interesting piece on AI and Rock, Paper, Scissors in the science section.
While this issue had some strong points, the Peter David piece and those marked RECOMMENDED, most of the rest of the stories felt pretty flat in comparison. There are a few things worth reading here, but this issue on the whole doesn’t feel up to the level of the past few issues. In fact, much of the non-fiction here was of more interest than some of the short stories. The next issue has already arrived, though, and the lineup looks to be a strong one, so I’ll hope this month was only a momentary falloff in entertainment value.
More information on Fantasy & Science Fiction can be found at their website, http://www.sfsite.com/fsf/
Review copyright Joey O’Donnell 2011