”Beneath this snowy mantle, cold and clean/The unborn grass lies waiting for its coat to turn to green….” (“Snowbird,” ©1968 Gene McLellan)
As I write this, it’s the winter solstice, when the day on this side of the planet is at its shortest (and the night its longest), and the world holds its breath, waiting for renewal. For just about everyone, it’s a time of peace and anticipation; whether you have one of the major faiths — Christianity (Christmas); Islam (Eid, just passed recently); Buddhist (Bhodi day); Judaism (Chanukkah); Pagan/Wiccan (Solstice), or no religious faith at all (atheist) — it’s a time for reconciliation and awareness of the precocity of existence (therefore, many give thanks to a Creator and/or a prophet or two), and a time for brotherhood to other human beings. (Figure 1, done by the late Kelly Freas 57 years ago for John W. Campbell’s Astounding, shows some of SF/F’s reaction to the season in these days of puppies and friction!) But seriously, folks…it is, whether you live in the cold or the warmth, whatever your beliefs (or lack thereof), a time to reflect and rejoice. And in that spirit, I offer a review of the last issue of F&SF for the year 2016.
So, to the fiction. Table of Contents: for novelettes, we have “The Cat Bell” (cover story) by Esther M. Friesner; “The Farmboy,” by Albert E. Cowdrey; “The Vindicator,” by Matthew Hughes; and (breaking the mold by not having “The” in the title) “Passelande” by Robert Reed. For short stories, we get “Between Going and Staying,” by Lilliam Rivera; “The Place of Bones,” by Gardner Dozois; “Lord Elgin at the Acropolis,” by Minsoo Kang; “Special Collections,” by Kurt Fawver; “A Fine Balance,” by Charlotte Ashley; “The Rhythm Man,” by James Beamon; and finally, “Merry Christmas from All of Us to All of You,” by Sandra McDonald. And, of course, The usual other stuff (which, in this case, includes “Books to Look For” (reviews) by Charles de Lint; “Books” (more reviews) by Chris Moriarty; “Films: Getting High” by David J. Skal; Competition #91 results and #92; Coming Attractions, the Index to Volumes 130 & 131, “Curiosities,” by Graham Andrews; and cartoons by Arthur Masear, Bill Long, Nick Downes, and S. Harris.) Quite a lot of writing for one little magazine, wouldn’t you say?
Esther Friesner has written a modern fable (or fairy tale, if you prefer, though there are no actual fairies in this story) — that is, “modern” for the late nineteenth century. Set in the New York area, it concerns a wealthy actor (according to the editor’s note, this was partially inspired by a visit to Gillette Castle in Connecticut, home of the late actor William Gillette who, as we’re told, originated the phrase “Elementary, my dear fellow,” often misquoted as “Elementary, my dear Watson,” in regards to Sherlock Holmes. But I digress. The story’s subject, known to us only as “Cook,” works as a… well, a cook, to an actor named Rutherford, who loves cats. He owns nineteen of them, and has his servant summon them to dinner with a bell, the eponymous cat bell. But what happens when twenty cats show up, and the newbie isn’t your typical tabby (or moggie, if you like)? Told with plenty of nineteenth-century verisimilitude, this little tale is somewhat cautionary.
Alfred E. Cowdrey’s “The Farmboy” is pure SF… and hearkens back to an older time in SF, a time of space exploration, when men and women in shining ships explored the stars. It also hearkens back to a bunch of more primal human emotions and motives: greed, sex, drugs, sex, money and, of course, sex. Set on an Earth-like world (Omega-Alpha “something”), it concerns a crew who discover gold there for the taking; the ship’s Engineer and the Medical Officer — Chuck and Anna — who have been carrying on a not-so-secret affair, now have to face the possibility that despite all odds, some of the crew might be planning to take the gold back to Earth with them. Nothing especially new in this story, but it’s well told.
Lilliam Rivera’s “Between Going and Staying” contains a concept that may be new to some readers, that of a professional mourner, though various cultures’ funerals throughout the years have used the same idea. In this case, a Doliente is more than just a mourner; Dolores has become one of the highest-paid Dolientes in the country (though never named, the country is surely south of the US border); not only does she wear various high-tech “skins” — one of the most popular is the “Selena” — designed to mask her own face and feelings — but she adds music and choreography to her services. A Doliente’s job is to bring comfort to the bereaved, not to line her own pockets. Can she return to her roots when she finds her former lover is now one of the “Disappeared” who have been taken by the cartels or the government? An interesting look at a culture slightly different from the usual North American one.
Matthew Hughes’s “The Vindicator” continues and completes the adventures of Raffalon the thief; according to the editor’s prefatory note, these adventures will be published as a collection next year. I don’t want to rave too much about this story, but to me, it appears to partake of the flavour of both Jack Vance’s and Fritz Leiber’s fantasy… in that, our protagonist isn’t one of the “best of the best” — as a thief he is, let’s face it, indifferent at best. And in this tale he serves as a facilitator to get things moving, then is quickly relegated to a bystander or a junior partner. Yet the conclusion is enjoyable and satisfying. I’m looking forward to the promised book!
Gardner Dozois is perhaps best known as an anthologist these days; I and many people eagerly await his “Year’s Best” anthology. But he is also an accomplished short-story writer; “The Place of Bones” is a very nice sample. I can’t say too much about it except that it takes place in perhaps an alternate eighteenth century (from internal clues); Martin and the narrator, aided by a couple of men-at-arms, are seeking the Dragonlands; only a certain pass through the Alps leads there, rather than to Spain. When they find them, the readers will know more about what is happening than the characters ever do. Brrr.
Minsoo Kang, in “Lord Elgin at the Acropolis,” brings us yet another culture that is somewhat unfamiliar to North American readers: Korean. The title of the story, of course, refers to the marbles taken from Greece by the titular Lord Elgin; the story itself revolves around a Korean art museum, the Metropole Museum of Modern and Post-Modern Art (MMMPMA), and its most famous painting, Plein Air by Claude Lantier. From there, Kang goes on to write a Philip K. Dick-ish examination of reality, aided by the fact that the painting talked about in the story, and its painter, are themselves figments of the imagination of Emile Zola. Not new ideas, for sure, but handled well and in possibly newer ways.
Sandra McDonald’s “From All of Us to All of You” is another in a long tradition of stories about the North Pole and what goes on there from year to year. This one may not be as comforting as some have been. You have been warned.
And in keeping with my own traditions of not telling all, I must draw this review to a close… I’ve left you some nice surprises in the four stories remaining. I hope you enjoy the rest of the magazine; I know I did.
This coming Sunday is Christmas Day; I wish you all a very happy and merry Christmas, whatever you believe. I won’t be doing another column until early next year, as I must gather together 2016’s columns into my annual list. That chore takes a while; even though I don’t manage to do one every single week in the year. If you go out to celebrate the New Year, please remember not to drink and drive unless you have a flying sleigh. In that case, I’m sure the reindeer know the way back; they ought to — they’re been doing it forever! Have a safe and happy New Year’s Eve and a happy and prosperous new year, everybody! (Feliz Navidad y prospero Año Nuevo, right?)
Please comment on this week’s column. You can comment here or on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. Your comments are all welcome, even if you don’t agree with me. 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 in 2017!