The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 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. This is our second review of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Our first review is HERE.
The May/June issue contains 12 stories, 9 columns, and three cartoons.
In a rare break with the norm, this issue opens with a pair of non-fiction pieces on people associated with the magazine both in its early days and in more recent years. One covers the life and death of a man named Fergus Gwynplaine MacIntyre, a regular contributor to the Curiosities column of the magazine. This piece, written by editor Gordon van Gelder, paints a picture of a life (and death) every bit as strange and interesting as the fantasy and science fiction stories the magazine regularly features.
The second of these non-fiction works is the story by a woman who had been searching for her grandfather's lost brother. It recounts some of her family history and the genealogical research that led to the discovery that her grandfather's brother was, in fact, the a co-founder of The Magazine of Fantasy, the original title of F&SF.
Both stories give interesting insight into some of the people behind the magazine over the years.
"The Final Verse" by Chet Williamson starts off the fiction very strongly. It's a first person story of a country/bluegrass musician on the trail of the final verse of a famous traditional song, "Mother Come Quickly". Chet knows his stuff as far as the bluegrass tradition is concerned. Within the opening few pages of the story he had placed "Mother Come Quickly" so firmly into the pantheon of traditional music and performers that he had me rooting around the internet to see if I had somehow missed something in my survey of bluegrass. But no, it's completely fictional.
The story itself is one of cultural anthropology, delving into the dark story of the song. Ultimately, the fantastical elements of the story are familiar to the reader, but setting them against the backdrop of a song in the Appalachian bluegrass tradition is a completely refreshing take on the subject. The latter part of the story oozes atmosphere and there's both nice closure and open-endedness to the piece. (RECOMMENDED)
"Stock Photos" by Robert Reed is a brief snapshot of a bizarre afternoon in the life of a man who, while out mowing his grass, is stopped by a beautiful woman and a photographer and asked to pose in various ways, presumably for a stock photo firm that then sells on the pictures to advertising firms when needed. As the man grows suspicious, he tries to get the woman to say what she's really doing there, leading to a very interesting, very vague answer. I think van Gelder described the story well later in the issue: "[It] was popular with the whole F&SF staff, but nobody was certain just what happened in it." I think that's fair. It's likable, but not really clear what's going on.
In response to the F&SF staff asking Reed what's actually going on in the story, he turned in a second piece for this issue, "The Road Ahead," which acts as a prequel (or sequel) to "Stock Photos". Here, in the time leading up to (or just after) the events of the previous story, the beautiful woman and the photographer are having a conversation about what they do, who owns their company, and how it's really being used. The photographer suspects that the pictures are being put to nefarious uses, but the woman remains vague.
While each of the stories is a bit vague on its own, together they make a a bizarre but somehow wonderful combination.
This issue has another story by Albert E. Cowdrey, something no F&SF seems to go without over the last little while. This time it's his "Black Mountain" -- another story exploring supernatural happenings across America. In this case the action centers around a historic church in New Orleans. As always, the supernatural elements of the story are not something experienced by the main character in a direct way. In some of Cowdrey's stories, this leads to a certain sense of unfulfilled potential. I this case, though, it works better than usual. The focus here is a conflict between a developer and a historical preservationist. Even though the main conflict is only observed (and not participated in) by the main character, there is a growth of character here that is sometimes lacking in Cowdrey's work, making this one of his better stories. (RECOMMENDED)
"Agent of Change" by Steven Popkes is not so much a linear story as it is a series of transcripts, news stories, anecdotes, and government reports exchanged in the wake of the discovery of a Pacific Leviathan, a massive sea creature that lives off of whales near Alaska. Contained within these various accounts are many diverse political and ecological viewpoints along with a small dose of the absurd. All in all, it's a short examination of what reactions the various governments, activist groups, and corporations may have in the wake of the discovery of something previously unknown on our planet. All in all, the various thoughts are what would reasonably be expected, without a lot of story to sink one’s teeth into.
While "Agent of Change" explores humanity's reaction to the discovery of a holdover from a previous epochs of Earth's history, "Fine Green Dust" by Don Webb takes a look at what humanity may have to do to survive once temperatures on Earth routinely climb over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. After languishing in debilitating heat for some time, the main character makes a surprising change that helps him to survive. Though it's built on an interesting concept, this one makes for a one-note story.
Alexandra Duncan's "Rampion" is the strongest story in the issue and perhaps one of the best I've read in the pages of F&SF in the years I've been reading it. Though it is the longest story in the issue, it weighs in at a relatively modest 45 pages. In those pages, though, Duncan captures emotions and images that many fantasy authors struggle to express in hundreds of pages. It is a retelling of the Rapunzel tale centering on a broken, blind ex-prince struggling across Ninth Century Spain to seek a lost love. Through flashback the story of Ishaq and Sofia's meeting and love is brought to life, as well as the brutal fate that Ishaq endured for his feelings. Rarely have I felt so much for a character in a novella as I did for Ishaq here.
The fantastic elements in "Rampion" are nonexistent, aside from the fact that one character is suspected of being a witch. Even without fantastic elements, the story on the whole does successfully capture the feeling of a very adult fairy tale. The writing conjures vivid images and strong emotion. I wouldn't be surprised if this one turns out to be an award contender. (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)
"Signs of Life" by Carter Scholz tells the story of James Byrne, a relatively unsuccessful database operator at a lab dedicated to mapping the human genome. Throughout the piece we get glimpses of Byrne's life leading him to his current position. He eventually develops some software for parsing DNA data that leads one of his co-workers to a breakthrough. The main character seems either to be completely lacking in ambition or completely broken down by the world. Either by design or happenstance, the story also seems to be lacking somehow. It meanders along, failing to take opportunities to actually move into a compelling narrative arc of any sort.
"Starship Dazzle" by Scott Bradfield is the fifth Dazzle the Dog story to appear in F&SF, though it's only the first I've come across. Dazzle is a thinking, talking dog that, in this case, signs up to be sent into deep space on a vessel searching for extra-terrestrial life. Not only is he trying to make contact, but he's also supposed to act as a salesman and try to convince any creatures he comes across to buy all the rubbish Earth doesn't need: lead-poisoned baby food, manure, general detritus and rubbish. Eventually contact is made and the deal struck between Earth and the alien life is somewhat surprising.
"The Old Terrologist's Tale" by S.L. Gilbow presents a concise debate on the subject of beauty versus utility. The story takes place during the inspection of a recently-created planet. In a strange flip-flop from the usual situation, the businessmen don't feel the planet is beautiful enough while the terrologists who created it go on about how well-constructed and sensible it is. This conflict sets the scene for the Old Terrologist to share an old story of a similar situation years ago. While the outer story is fairly mundane, the inner story is interesting enough to carry the piece. (RECOMMENDED)
One of my favorite stories in the previous issue of F&SF was Ken Liu's tale of a mother who breathed life into origami animals she crafted for her son and how that son came to love and understand his mother. This month's offering by the same author is very similar thematically, a daughter coming to understand the choices her mother has made and why they've been separated for so long. That's where the similarity ends, though. "Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer" is set in a post-Singularity society. The characters in this story exist in any number of dimensions, and the story suffers a little bit for having characters so removed from normal, biological human life.
This issue opened with a a story about music, and so it's fitting that it ends the same way. The closing number is Kate Wilhelm's "Music Makers", a story about a music journalist looking into the history of a Memphis jazz trio. Two thirds of the group have died of old age and the house they made music in has passed on to a grand-niece. When the journalist meets the family, we're treated to a beautiful story of the relationships between the original members of the trio and how their talents are being passed on to a younger generation. (RECOMMENDED FOR THOSE WHO ARE A LITTLE BIT SENTIMENTAL)
On the whole, I found this to be a strong collection of short fiction, with the excellent musical bookends keeping the magnificent "Rampion" in the middle. In addition, the stronger-than-usual Cowdrey and the bizarre, head-scratching, thought-provoking pair by Robert Reed make this a can't-miss issue.
Also contained in this issue are book and movie reviews by Charles de Lint, Chris Moriarty, and Kathy Maio and a curious piece by Paul di Filippo on building a readership. 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
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