It is entirely coincidental that Stephen Hawking was born on January 8, 1942 and Steve (Stephen) Fahnestalk was born on January 9, 1947. Because there’s no way in Hell that I can claim to be as smart as Hawking was. (If being born on January 8 or 9 is significant, let me remind you that Elvis Presley was born on January 8 and Richard Nixon was born on January 9.) Yet he became our time’s kind of touchstone for intellect that Albert Einstein had been for his time. The world may see his like again, but my guess is the new Einstein/Hawking has not yet been born. He died on March 14, 2018—and Einstein was born on 14 March 1879. Yet another coincidence; the universe is probably weirder than we—at least in our lifetimes—will be able to grasp.
Hawking was, oddly enough, probably at least as popular in his day (our day) as Einstein was in his—Einstein hobnobbed with celebrities like Marilyn Monroe; Hawking not only hobnobbed with celebrities—despite the fact that he was physically paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair—and appeared in a number of TV shows, like The Big Bang Theory and Star Trek (next gen.). My wife, the Beautiful and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, and I got to see him live once, about fifteen years ago, in Edmonton, Alberta. And he was entertaining then, too, making his standard joke about his vocal synthesizer. (Simon Helberg, Big Bang’s Howard Walowitz, does a killer imitation of Hawking’s synthesizer, by the way.) Hawking now belongs to the whole universe, not just Earth.
At first glance, the cover for the new F&SF (Mar-Apr 2018), by Cory and Catska Ench, looks rather cool… some kind of human-animal hybrid, perhaps, or maybe a satyr, playing a violin in a 17th-century-looking salon. But then you start wondering—how is it that this person is not falling down, given the way his/its legs are drawn? It kinda makes me uneasy to look at it. However, aside from that, it’s a well-done cover.
This issue, I’m going to start with the shortest piece in the magazine which, by the way, contains all the usual stuff that I’m not going to be reviewing (like book review columns, editorials, science, and so forth. You can find that stuff here). This piece is a poem by Mary Soon Lee, called “Diaspora.” It’s only eight non-rhyming stanzas (though it contains a bit of alliteration), and it presumes that in the future, our culture wars will be solved forcibly by self-aware machines, sending each conflicting group out into the solar system willy-nilly. “Mercury’s Marxist cyborgs/Callisto’s Calibrated Catholics”… and so on. The ending is punchy, too, and I liked it. I won’t be rating each story or poem; I’ll do a rating for the overall magazine, but this would be a very highly rated one if I did separate ratings.
The longest story in this issue (but not the cover story) is “Likho,” by Andy Stewart. Stewart previously wrote a story about Chernobyl (I hope I don’t need to tell you what that is; we’re all grownups here) and how the radiation from the damaged reactor spawned children with powers (“Wormwood is Also a Star,” F&SF May-June 2013). Stories about radiation spawning children (or adults, to be fair) with extraordinary abilities go back to the ‘40s and ‘50s, with such tales as Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother” (Astounding, 1948), and Richard Matheson’s “Born of Man and Woman” (F&SF, 1950). When anxiety about atomic war, and the uncertainties of what would happen after such a war were raging—how many of us not only remember, but practiced “Duck And Cover” in grade school?—mutated children became a trope of SF for a while, with varying results.
Pripyat (Figure 3) is the city where Chernobyl’s workers lived, and which was evacuated after the reactor blew, leaving it deserted for the past 32 years. Parts of Pripyat—and this is true–are now being scouted by the young and fearless, who sneak in past patrols, armed only with Geiger counters and cans of spray paint, to graffiti these long-deserted walls. Pripyat has also featured in a couple of recent movies, though I don’t believe either of them was actually filmed in that city—one was a horror movie (fairly effective, if you can suspend your disbelief) called The Chernobyl Incident, about radioactive zombie-types living in either Pripyat or Chernobyl. The other—and this one required a bigger suspension of disbelief—was Bruce Willis’s A Good Day to Die Hard, whose conclusion took place in Chernobyl itself, but which featured Pripyat a lot. If you’ve seen either of those movies you’ve probably seen the abandoned carnival, with the still-standing Ferris wheel; this carnival and wheel have also featured in at least one video game.
Stewart has, here, made a sort of a modern folk tale about Pripyat (not Chernobyl at all); but it also involves the Ukrainian Revolution. The protagonist of this tale is Sonya, who was a medic during that revolution; she has come to Pripyat because there is a somewhat widespread story about an anomaly called The Angel’s Tear, where radiation was held back after the explosion by some supernaturally-powered children. Those same seven children killed themselves and are now known among cognoscenti as The Witch Children. There is a mural in Pripyat, said to have been painted by Ivana, the youngest one of the children, which is also said to move.
Sonya has come to Pripyat to photograph this mural and find out the truth. One of the ways I think I can tell whether a story is well written is how easily I accept the truth of things that are being said… in spite of their falsity. I found myself slipping under the spell of the Angel’s Tear, the Witch Children, and everything else Stewart was telling mes. It all rang true, even the phony-baloney hallucinogenic drug that Sonya was taking. I think you’ll enjoy this one a lot. And, as I say, it has that “folk tale” feel of reality.
**Interesting fact: The animals in and around Pripyat don’t carry Geiger counters and, in fact, have been flourishing. Check out this link.
The third-longest story in this issue, as well as the cover story, answers my question about the figure on the cover: it is, in fact “The Satyr of Brandenburg,” by Charlotte Ashley. How can you not like a story which begins “By the inebriated light of dawn, October the 23rd, 1700”? I’m sure you’re wiser than I am, but I definitely remember any number of inebriated-light dawns in my younger days. So with a light (yet not inebriated) heart, I sat down to read this story.
It concerns a duellist named “La Héron,” a woman with some quality of fey (I haven’t read the previous story that I recall, so I’m learning about these two characters as I read), and her “assistant,” an ex-nun named “Sister Louise-Alexandrine,” or “Alex,” as La Héron calls her. They have come to the villa of one of Sardinia’s rich men, an extremely rich Marquess of Soleminis, for the promise of a heavy purse of gold should Héron defeat all the other contestants (all of them “grotesques”) in a series of duels. (Previous to this story, Héron won Alex’s soul in some sort of contest; she’s now seeking to find a way to break that bond and set Alex free.)
The contestants, who number four (Alex is not a contestant; Héron is) are a nine-hundred-year-old man (reputedly), the Neapolitan Don Ennio Angeli; Piacere the Satyr, whom Héron knows to be a liar and a cheat; Héron herself, a famed woman duellist with giants’ blood in her veins; and, finally, Donhead Doomsbellows, an eight-foot-tall ogre.
After Héron fights Don Ennio and defeats him, she is aware that Piacere has been there before her—his talent, which he uses to cheat (and possibly through the artifice of his fiddle) is to take away the outer seeming of anyone and bind it to his service. Héron has fought merely the seeming of Don Ennio, and Piacere is holding the real Don Ennio hostage somewhere. Alas! I can tell you no more without spoilers. The story progresses from here; it is extremely well written, and I well recommend it to you. (Boy, that courtly style of speech sticks with you, doesn’t it?)
“After The Wolf,” by Jeff Crandall, is a poem in four parts: Red, The Wolf, The Huntsman… and Gran. Hey, there’s a lot more to “Red Riding Hood” than we know. Here some secrets—and maybe some we’d rather not know—are laid bare. And what happens after the Huntsman saves Red, eh? An excellent poem indeed.
“A Dog of Wu,” by Ted Rabinowitz, is his first story for F&SF, and it’s got that tang of SF that will reward the hard work of reading it. Tomas A1∑ Milano is a Culler for the Clan of Wu in Hanrei; one who keeps the Clades from genetic drift. The Subchief of the North, Wu herself, has called him in to find the perverts who are listening to old radio programs, like X-Minus-One, and get rid of them. This is long in the future after humankind has fled Old Earth. The Way is threatened by such words as “rocket,” and the Wu is sending Milano to find out where it came from.
Long ago, the Way was developed, and humanity was split into Clades, as a way to fight the Drift (not only genetic, but also cultural). Everyone in Hanrei follows the Way; but those who Drift must be culled; that is the role of the Milanos.
What Tomas A1∑ Milano finds will, in time, change the Way entirely, and perhaps the world will be better for it. I can’t tell you much more, except that I thought this was really well thought out. And I did enjoy it.
“Deep Sea Fish,” by Chi Hui (translated by Brian Brees) is not a new story, except to English-speaking SF readers; it was first published in China in 2011. In this story, the non-human ruins were discovered in a crater on the moon in 2084; however, the story itself takes place some years later on Titan.
Doctor Yanse is one of a group of nine archaelogists who have come to Titan (as you’re aware, a Saturnian satellite) to study and photograph the ruins, statues and carvings under Yenchur Mare before (in only a couple of weeks) the Terraforming of Titan destroys them forever. At an ambient temperature of minus 178 Celsius (under -200 under the “water”—liquid methane—of Titan’s Mares), even a hint of heat is enough to melt the carvings and make them literally boil away. The carvings are made of a mixture of methane “ice” and organic material. At this temperature, the ice is as hard as rock; but if the archaelogists’ suits were to leak, the ice would boil into vapour.
Shades of what we’ve already seen happen on Earth, where priceless—knowledge-wise—artifacts have been buried, destroyed, and/or submerged for the sake of either “progress” or money (I’m thinking of the Aswan dam, somewhat recently, submerging Egyptian history).
Some second-generation Titan settlers are banding together to try to stop the Terraforming of Titan; Terraforming that could destroy not only the ruins of a non-human civilization, but also much native Titan “life”—crystals that the orthodox scientific community refuses to recognize as life, because it contains no DNA—yet it reproduces in a spectacular way. Yanse meets one of these second-generation settlers, Issenal (“Izzy”) Chen, who is key to the story.
Although this story ends on a sad note, it’s also a hopeful note; even Chinese SF writers recognize that the destiny of the human race is to expand into space; possibly even interstellar space. Well worth reading!
“Plumage From Pegasus (The Varley Effect),” by Paul Di Filippo, borrows a trope from John Varley’s Millennium. Have you ever wondered—see my first paragraph—why sometimes so many famous people die really closely to each other (in time, not in space)?
In the far future, humans have had the artistic gene bred out of them, and so famous artists who lived until, roughly 1995—writers, musicians, and so on—were taken at the moment of their deaths, brought forward into the future and revived—and nonviable simulacra were left in their places. Unlike in Varley’s future, they are not expected to revive the gene pool (“You primitives could never get a breeding certificate nowadays,” one said), but were expected to use their new, extended lifespans, to create something new for the masses to appreciate. A clever little short-short, with a wry little twist at the end.
“A Swim and a Crawl,” by Marc Laidlaw, is an oddity. We learn things about the protagonist, even why he is where he is—which is in the sea, caught in a current that parallels the short—but not who he is. Nor do we learn the outcome of his story. I’d like to dislike this, because it feels unfinished, but I actually kind of liked it.
G. V. Anderson won the World Fantasy Award for best short story last year; her newest story is “Down Where Sound Comes Blunt,” in this issue of F&SF. It’s about a researcher, Ellen Riba, whose father Sebastian was famed as the discoverer of Homo sirenia, a deep-sea-dwelling species of human (popularly dubbed “selkies” in the media). Her father has disappeared under the ice in Greenland, following a local group—distinct from the oceanic ones he’s previously noted—but Ellen has seen the signal from his tracker under the ice, and is convinced he’s still alive.
But the people who watch out for such colonies (and protect them) have given her notice that her father is considered dead, and she and the team she works with must vacate the area immediately, a move she is not comfortable with. Her father is alive, she tells herself, and he must be studying this group of seal-like humans. She cannot leave without verifying his life or death.
In this story, as in life, one must always be careful about getting what one desires. It may turn out to be more or less than you think. A well-done story.
Susan Palwick’s “Hideous Flowerpots” couldn’t have been written by a man, I think. Most men are afraid—hey, me included!—of opening up too much to other people. This story isn’t about that; it’s about opening up to one’s self. Many of us have been told that we’re not good enough at whatever it is we want to do; the story’s quote is “Many people believe that they’re artists, [when] they aren’t.” The converse is also true: many of us have been told we aren’t artists, when we are. Look, it’s not a question of whether you are an artist—or even of how good an artist you are—it’s a question of whether you believe you’re an artist.
But a hideous repurposed flowerpot and a magical measuring tape can make it all right, can’t they? No, but they can help you begin to turn your beliefs around. Although this story focuses on women, there are many broken people in the world who could use what these women have. I liked this one; it resonated.
“The Beast From Below,” by William Ledbetter, is a throwback to the ‘50s and all those giant monster—‘scuse me, “manster” (you’ll have to read it to find out why I say that)—movies. It’s mildly amusing, although just as scientifically ridiculous as all those movies. Some of the humour comes from dialect, which I always enjoy if it’s done right. I found the story predictable, though pretty well written, so I’m sure Ledbetter will do better later. (Sorry. That just popped out.)
For our penultimate story, the editor tells us that Joseph Bruchac—who is an Abenaki (Native American)—is one of America’s best-known storytellers, with stories in Smithsonian and National Geographic as well as 120 books! His first F&SF story, “The Next to the Last of the Mohegans,” is informed by his close association with the Connecticut Mohegan people and the late ethnologist and medicine woman, Gladys Tantaquidgeon.
Even though I can proudly claim some Native heritage (my great-great grandmother’s name was—I’ve seen a copy of the marriage certificate—simply “Crow woman”), I know little about Natives from first-hand observation; like most white people, I’ve seen, heard and read much about various Native cultures. I know some words in some Native languages (my favourite was “Pinda Lick-o-Yi,” which Andre Norton told us meant “white man” in Apache*); and I was pretty good friends with a Native man in the Navy. But one thing most ethnologists agree on is that Natives have a good sense of humour (culturally)—and that’s borne out by this story. Heck, just the title will tell you something about its humour.
Billy—I think his last name is Bowman—is Arlin Sweetwater’s best friend; they’re both Mohegan (what we used to call “Mohican.” Remember the Firesign Theater’s 1974 album, Everything You Know is Wrong? Well, just about everything you learned back in The Day, including tribal names, is wrong); they’ve been friends since childhood. Arlin has a problem—not related to his sense of humour which is, by all accounts, somewhat juvenile. No, his problem is that he’s not only incredibly curious, but also incredibly intelligent… and that gets him into more trouble than you can believe. And he always drags Billy into it to get him, Arlin, out of it.
Like, take the time told in this story, about the Little People, the Makiawisug. They’re known all over the world—the Irish, for example, call them “leprechauns”—and every culture tells the same thing. Don’t mess with the Little People! But Arlin being who he is, he has to try “in the spirit of scientific inquiry.” He’s lucky he has Billy—with his own abilities—to bail him out all the time. Now, this is how to write a humorous story—with the humour arising from character, place and actions. Funny, and worth reading—and hey! You now know another Native word, don’t you?!
Which brings us to the end of this issue. These stories, by the way, are not being reviewed in the order in which they appeared. I like to mix things up; so this was not necessarily the last story in the magazine (which was actually Paul Di Filippo’s story). It’s a story by a Nigerian, Wole Talabi—his second for F&SF—set in the town he grew up in, called Warri. The protagonist is a thirteen-year-old girl named Ejiro (Ejiroghene), who likes to read bad science fiction; she feels somewhat alienated at home because her mother has become something of a harsh disciplinarian ever since Ejiro started approaching puberty. Her mother even canes her sometimes. The only person in her family who takes her seriously is her father, who no longer works for the company whose town this is. Her father somehow wrote a best-selling novel and was able to pay off his house and quit his job, but who remains—to the dismay of the company—as a community activist.
And one evening, when Ejiro was taking a bucket of tomatoes to her Aunty Imoke’s for grinding, she saw something unusual fall from the sky. About the size of an iPhone, it was like nothing she had ever seen before. And here is where I must stop describing, for fear of spoiling this wonderful story before you read it. From here it just becomes something that reminds me of the wonderful 1958 book by Theodore Sturgeon, The Cosmic Rape. Because I remain hopeful about the potential of the human species, this story probably resonates more with me than it might with others; all I can say is that if you liked the Sturgeon you will probably like this. And as a bonus, there’s nice bits of Nigerian speech and culture embedded into the story.
Final/Overall Score for the magazine: ¤¤¤+ (that’s 3-plus flibbets out of 5! A very good score indeed.)
*Last words: I watch a fair number of 1950s & 1960s Western TV shows and movies on our co-op’s satellite channel, though I’m not sure which channel it actually is. On at least one occasion, I heard someone playing an Apache use the word “Pinda Lick-o-Yi” to refer to a “white person.” I’m pretty sure that validates Andre Norton! (Although I think, from the way it was said, that it wasn’t complimentary… something like “white eyes.”)
Please comment on this column if you have anything at all to say, good or bad. You can comment here, or on my Facebook page, anywhere in Facebook where I link to this column. I welcome all your comments, whether you agree with me or not. And remember, 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!