Apropos of nothing, I feel like I should point out that The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (called “F&SF” by everyone) is almost as old as me; that is, it’s been around almost my whole life. But I probably didn’t start reading it until the late 1950s, in the “person” of The Best From F&SF, Seventh Series, 1958, edited by Anthony Boucher — or maybe the next one; I know I was still a preteen. We were living in Florida (my dad was in the US Air Force), and the base library (Tyndall Air Force Base, Panama City, FL) had — unusually — a separate SF section. Aside from a few titles, I can’t remember what was on that shelf, which was about 5 feet wide by five feet high. The titles I remember were several Conan (Gnome Press) hardcovers — almost all those hardcovers on that shelf had dust jackets, too — as well as Ian Fleming’s Moonraker (hey, it had rockets in it) and a number of terrific anthologies, including the above, plus others edited by Fred Pohl, Everett Bleiler, Ted Dikty, and so on. For me it was a Golden Age of SF/F. There were a number of professional magazines available, and one of my friends — Jimmy Griffin, the same friend who had all the Ace Doubles — had a lot of them (magazines, that is). Astounding was the “hard SF” one (later to be called Analog; F&SF had (and still has) a mixture of SF and fantasy; the anthologies were a mixed bag. But over the years I have stuck with F&SF through a pretty good number of editors. One of the things I came to look forward to on F&SF covers was Mel Hunter’s little robot (Figure 1). F&SF had wonderful covers by Hunter, Kelly Freas, Ed Emshwiller and others; they’re running through my brain even as I speak. Er, write. I haven’t heard from Jimmy in something like 55 years; we were the only two we knew back then who read SF/F, and we had a friendly rivalry — he knew more electronics than I, and he was a better artist (of course, all our SF art was stolen from Emsh, and Freas, and Wally Wood!)
So, yes, I’m kind of an Old Fart, as they say — but I’ve been reading SF/F for most of my life as an avocation; as soon as I can make it pay, it’ll be my vocation. Although I’ve been Missing in Action for the last two weeks, I’m back — and this week I am pleased to review the current issue (well, until the pub date for the Sept/Oct issue) of F&SF! Gordon Van Gelder (the publisher) sends doc files of the fiction to reviewers, and I’ve been privately bemoaning the fact that I miss all the nonfiction stuff by not buying the magazine… until this week, when I realized — wotta maroon! as Bugs says — he puts all the nonfiction stuff up on the website! So if you, like me, are a big fan of the columnists and reviewers, you can read them all — book reviews, film reviews, science column et al. at https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/current.htm — including one of the stories: “Plumage from Pegasus,” by Paul Di Filippo! And all you’re missing from there is most of the fiction — a darned good reason to buy the magazine, right? (From early times I used to read my SF/F magazines this way: first, the editorial — if any — then the lettercol, then the science/fact column — if any — then the Feghoot or comparable, and lastly, the stories.)
I’m not planning on reviewing these stories in the order they appear in the magazine; the files I get aren’t in order as published, according to what I read on the website. So I’ll just review ’em as I feel like doing; I usually do anyway. Let’s start with the issue’s lone poem: “Martian Garden” (with thanks to Mark Aiello), by John Philip Johnson. It’s a bare 26 lines, but as with most poetry worth reading, conveys an emotion. Ostensibly about colonists attempting to make a garden in Martian soil (shades of Matt Damon!), it’s more about how changing a little thing can change your whole outlook. I liked it.
“Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful,” the cover story by Gregor Hartmann (Figure 2) is, in my opinion, as “hard SF” as anything Analog has ever run. No, there are no spaceships, spacesuits, building orbital habitats, etc., just a story that wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the scientific content. The author translates Japanese patents dealing with materials science and nanotechnology, and it sounds like one or more of those gave him the idea for this story. Many of us are interested in science and scientific advance for the sheer excitement of new knowledge, but there is a whole group of people out there — managers, investors, and bookkeepers for three — who have no interest in science for science’s sake. And in nanotechnology there are all kinds of undiscovered things that have either practical or saleable applications. But as the Umbrella Corporation discovered in Resident Evil, not everything should be followed up on! (No, the story is nothing like RE; but everyone in it should have remembered that everything has consequences.)
“Jesus Has Forgiven Me. Why Can’t You?” by Betsy Phillips, is kind of an oddity. It starts out as a rant by a Southern woman — a follower of professional wrestling — about how she was deceived by her so-called “boyfriend” — who turned out to have a wife — then turns into something that has an entirely different unintended consequence than the story just above. Let’s face it: if you’re gonna take His name in vain, you’d better be sure He’s in your corner about it. Fun, even for us atheists. (There’s an interview with Ms. Phillips on the F&SF website, btw.)
“The Vanishing Kind,” by Lavie Tidhar, is a story in the vein of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, but a much darker version of our world than Dick envisioned. Tidhar has published a novel, A Man Lies Dreaming, set in a world where the Nazis defeated Russia and the Allies and won World War II; this story is set in that world. No mention is made here of either of the other putative victors — Italy or Japan — but the Britain we see here is pretty scary without them. Knowing that the Nazis have — or believe they have — eliminated Jews from the world, as well as burning all “subversive” books, made Britain a subject state and put agents of the SS everywhere, listening to everyone, makes this a frightening world indeed. (In fact, I was reminded by this story of one scene in the TV version of The Man in the High Castle, where a truck driver was stopped by a Nazi-approved policeman (in the U.S.), and noticed grey flakes raining down from the sky. “What’s that?” he asked the cop, and was told cheerfully “Oh, on Thursday they burn the cripples and mentally deficient.” Or something like that.) It’s a terrifying alternate world…but there’s just a tiny glimmer of hope under it all.
David Prill’s “Vishnu Summer” is a little fantasy story that reminds me of one of my favourite fantasy author’s (and a friend’s) work: Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s. The protagonist is a young woman who has a problem, and her female parent is kind of off the rails. (As in many Hoffman stories, everything about this character is just a leetle bit skewed.) Audrey’s problem is that when she was younger, she got her arm caught in a bit of farm machinery (back before her Pa drowned in Flagger’s Pond) and taken right off. Ma has been painting a never-ending mural on the barn, and she’s not really tracking the way we think of it…which is okay until the three-armed musician, Marty Earles, comes to town to be put on trial for killing his wife and girlfriend. Things get even weirder from there. A fun story, written in a style that I, personally, really like.
“The Desert of Vanished Dreams” by Phyllis Eisenstein, features a character, Alaric the Bard, who apparently first appeared in the pages of F&SF in 1971 — that’s 45 years ago! I, personally, don’t remember Alaric, but he’s a pretty well-realized character in this story. Alaric is with a caravan, going across a desert (not a desert on this world, I should mention); but several wells have gone dry along their route, and things are getting desperate. There is, however, a secret place known only to the caravan master, Piros, who asks for Alaric’s aid — a place where they will surely be able to fill their waterskins and casks. (Alaric doesn’t reveal that he can go across the desert in the blink of an eye, needing neither camel nor caravan; it will become important later in the story.) An interesting little story about magic and the passage of time.
Paul Di Filippo’s “Plumage From Pegasus” is the sole story you’ll be able to read on the website. It’s almost an editor’s wish-fulfillment idea; there are too many writers who can’t write; who “…will remain unpublished forever unless [they] acquire some fundamental understanding of how the world works and the ability to peer sympathetically into the hearts and minds of myriad types of people outside [their] normal sphere of activities,” according to one character in this story. Many writers (yes, including me) don’t necessarily have a deft touch with character; in the case of this story, it’s all down to insularity and lack of experience. I wish it were that easy. But the story’s well written.
As you know, I’m not a big fan of spoilers — and that includes talking about every single story in an issue, so I’m going to leave a couple of them untouched. I am, however, going to talk here about one of the longer stories in this issue for a couple of reasons: first, because it’s a very good and somewhat funny story; and second, because the very next F&SF (Sept./Oct. 2016) will be a special David Gerrold issue (an F&SF tradition, the author tribute edition) with a terrific David Hardy cover! So, up now is David Gerrold’s “The Thing on the Shelf.” According to F&SF’s new editor (C.C. Finlay), they’ve been sitting on this story and waiting for the right time to publish it; I guess just before the special issue was the right time. Anyway, the story’s a gem, and full of little touches and “Easter Eggs,” as movie/game enthusiasts might say. It concerns a World Fantasy Award that David won for his story “Night Train to Paris.” That story — which I haven’t read, but am definitely going to find — as well as other stories, “The Thing in the Back Yard” and “Entanglements” which are, like this one, set in “The Further Adventures of David Gerrold”-land, according to the author in this interview. You see, that particular award, designed by Harlan Ellison and artist Steven Kirk, looks like a little haunted house made of resin. With a front door that opens to disclose the name of the recipient. And, according to Gerrold, when you win one, you get commiserated with instead of congratulated. The rest of the story — and it’s a hair broader than tongue-in-cheek — follows from there. Astute readers might see a trifle of influence from M.R. James’s “The Mezzotint” and “The Haunted Doll’s House” or Henry Kuttner’s “Housing Problem”(and if you don’t know these stories, I recommend them highly) — but any story similar to these would bring a comparison; I think David has done an excellent job of keeping the story dissimilar to them.
An interesting sidebar: at one point, the protagonist (named David Gerrold, too) talks about a burlesque show in 1976, where dancer Sally Rand was on the bill, which amused me. In 1976, for those of you who weren’t there, the World Science Fiction Convention, or “Worldcon” (nicknamed “Big Mac”), was in Kansas City, Missouri (just like the one — Big Mac II — that’s happening right now!) and the pro Author GOHs were Robert A. Heinlein and Leigh Brackett, two names which resonated (let’s face it — were magic!) with all of us older SF/F readers. And a special guest, who also grew up with and was a childhood friend of, RAH’s, was the selfsame Sally Rand (I flabbergasted my father, who was a Rand fan in the forties, by showing him Sally’s autograph in my program book — she signed “Your fan, Sally Rand”)! I got to talk to Sally because I was palling around that con with old friends Frank and Bev Herbert, George Barr, and Frank Kelly Freas. (Brag, brag….)
Anyway, this story is fun (and timely because of upcoming Halloween and World Fantasy Con) and if Gerrold hadn’t been getting the cover for next issue, would probably have otherwise gotten him the cover this time.
CORRECTION: David Gerrold has informed me I messed up–sorry, David–it’s not a World Fantasy Award, it’s a Bram Stoker award. Some days my fingers move way ahead of my brain!
Last words: Thanks to all fellow Canadians who voted for the Aurora, especially those who voted for me and the B&T Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk! Unfortunately for us, we didn’t win. But that’s not really why I do this column anyway, so I’m not as disappointed as I otherwise might be. So onward and upward, etc. To infinity and… whatever! And let’s not forget VCON is coming up at the end of September; we’re in our 41st year or so (I can say “we” because I’m a Guest/Toastmaster Emeritus). Our theme this year is “Muppets, Puppets, and Marionettes” and “The Small Press Cabal.” This year’s TM is Spider Robinson, and the various guests include Author GOH Robert J. Sawyer (Quantum Night); film designer Eric Chu (Battlestar Galactica); Ultramarionation director Jamie Anderson (FireStorm, Thunderbirds); magazine editor Karl Johanson (Neo-Opsis); art director Stephanie Johanson (Neo-Opsis); and Godzilla fan Stan Hyde (Monster Attack Team Canada). Plus Spider, John T. Gordy (T*A*M* Gordy) and I will be doing our annual Beatles Jam and Singalong (with, we hope, special guitar whiz guest Randy Reichardt!). A splendid time is guaranteed for all!
Famous Last Words: Coming attractions, in the coming weeks, include a look at The Avengers — no, not Marvel’s group; in this case, I’m talking about John Steed, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, Purdey, et al. It’s fascinating watching these series after a hiatus of umpty-ump years. I might also dip into Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar, AKA The Saint. (No, Val Kilmer’s “Saint” was absolutely nothing like the real Simon Templar. (OTOH, I was never convinced that wossname, the Bond fill-in (you know, Roger Moore), was the real deal either. But we’ll get into that at another time.) And there’s a new Lee Child Jack Reacher book and movie coming: the book is brand new (Night School); the Tom Cruise movie is based on Child’s Never Go Back. Will it satisfy? Will it discard the book in favour of more action for Cruise, who’s starting to look a little shopworn these days? I’ll let you know!
Please comment on this week’s column — if you feel like it, that is. You can either comment here or on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. Whether I agree with your comments or not, they’re all welcome, so don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!
Thanks for the good word, Steve. Glad you liked it. ~ John Johnson
I should mention that the “Beatles Jam” is actually a “Beatles Jam and Singalong”! Previous guests at VCON (and other cons we’ve done it at) include Larry Niven, who seemed to have a lot of fun singing along. I tried to do some editing yesterday afternoon, but the column had already been scheduled, and when that happens, the software won’t allow any more edits. Grr.