This is the time of year when I usually take a couple or three weeks off from this column; like most people, I enjoy spending time with friends and family away from the computer, rather than stuck up in my office with only the cat for company. (Not that he isn’t good company, but my wife tends not to climb up my leg using claws and sit on my shoulder like he does. Which is kind of painful.) So as my final column for 2018, I thought I’d treat myself to another issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which, I must admit, has always been a favourite of mine over the years. I’ve been reading it, on and off, over the tenure of a number of editors, some of whom have even been, or become, friends, and it’s always held to a high standard of quality, not only in fiction, but also in art, non-fiction, poetry, reviews, and even Feghoots! (Ferdinand Feghoot, if you don’t know or haven’t followed the link above, was a character in shorts [stories, not clothing] written by Reginald Bretnor, under the cognomen of “Grendel Briarton,” culminating in some of the ugliest and funniest puns in SF outside a Spider Robinson book or story.)
Edited, as it normally is, by C.C. Finlay (and published, as always, by Gordon Van Gelder), this issue contains eleven stories and one poem, plus cartoons and the usual columns: a science column by Jerry Oltion, book columns by Charles de Lint and James Sallis, a film column by David J. Skal, and a “curiosities” column by the always-curious David Langford. The cover is by Alan M. Clark for “The Iconoclasma,” by Hanuš Seiner.
The fiction includes the above “Iconoclasma,” plus Y. M. Pang’s “The Lady of Butterflies”; Robert Reed’s “Every Color of Invisible,” “This Constant Narrowing,” by Geoff Ryman; Jeffrey Ford’s “Thanksgiving”; “Extreme 42,” by Sean McMullen; “Overwintering Habits of the North American Mermaid,” by Abra Staffin-Wiebe; Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Other People’s Dreams”; Nick DiChario’s “The Baron and His Floating Daughter”; “When We Flew Together Through the Ice,” by J.R. Dawson; and “The Island and its Boy,” by Bo Balder. The poem is Ruth Berman’s “Escaping the Ogre.” A full slate indeed!
Full disclosure on the first story I’m citing here—Nina K. Hoffman’s “Other People’s Dreams”—I have always been impressed by Nina’s writing, and I’ve seen it much earlier than most of you have; we used to be part of the same writing group in Moscow, Idaho, some 40 years ago (What? Can that be right? She doesn’t look very different today to my eyes.) She has always had a certain sensitivity to her writing that was lacking in much of the fiction churned out by other members of our group (called “Writers’ Bloc”—well, it was Moskva, I mean Moscow). Considering our group had now best-selling writers like—besides Nina—Dean Wesley Smith, Vicki Mitchell, Amy Thomson, and was complimented by none other than Algis (A.J.) Budrys, that’s saying something. This story is, though it sounds like fantasy, a science-fictional future set on a world where some women have the power to craft dreams into reality. It’s also about friendship and gaining maturity; about family and, yes, dreams and reality. I liked it a lot.
Y.M. Pang’s first story for F&SF is a fable set in a fantasy world very like a past China or Japan (forgive me; I’m not able to decide which). The protagonist, Lady Rikara, is First Sword to the Emperor; he gave her the post over the protestations of Lord Yoshen, who desired greatly to be First Sword. Her duties are to protect the Emperor above all; and one day when she and the Emperor find a northern woman in one of the palace gardens, Rikara draws her sword, then they learn that the sword is not necessary. This foreign woman knows not where she is nor how she got there, but she has some attraction for butterflies. Her name, they learn, is Morieth, and she fascinates both Rikara and the Emperor. She remembers little of her past, and becomes Rikara’s task to train her in the ways of the Court, and the language of the South. Then one day, an emissary from another Court comes to call on the Emperor, and we learn that the ruler of Jillen knows a secret about the Lady Morieth. Rikara is faced with an impossible choice, between duty and the life of someone she loves. Nicely written!
“Thanksgiving,” by Jeffrey Ford, is an oddity. What if someone comes every year to your big Thanksgiving dinner, introducing himself as “Uncle Jake,” and you discover—15 years later—that he’s nobody’s uncle. At least, nobody will admit to having him for an uncle. What do you do then? (I hope your solution is a bit more robust than theirs.) I’m not sure if I agree with the ending, though it was well written up to that point. (By the way, I like turkey dark meat, and I’m darned near alone on that point!)
Sean McMullen’s “Extreme 42” is, in a way, an offshoot of mapping the human genome. The gene MAOA, the so-called “warrior gene,” is also possibly linked with psychopathy; combining that with DRD4, a dopamine receptor gene, means our protagonist, George Kensington, is possibly a latent psychopath, but also someone who lives for extremes. When we meet him he’s coming down off Everest and nearly dies, but that’s what he wants: extremes. He—and possibly everyone—has a transponder in his system so the authorities can keep tabs on him; if he wants to do something extreme as well as illegal, he has to have a cloned transponder in someone doing something innocuous… and George wears a Faraday cage to keep his transponder quiet. Coming off Everest, he hears a voice as he drifts in and out of consciousness; it’s a woman he calls “Husky,” and he meets her again. She wants to recruit him and several other extremes to do something extremely illegal, and is willing to pay well for the privilege. George doesn’t really care what it is, only that it’s extreme. However, he may regret his choice later. A bit cutting-edge, and kinda scary.
“The Iconoclasma,” by Hanuš Seiner, comes to us from the land of Rossum’s Universal Robots, or the Czech Republic. And it’s imaginative, and very weird. You are, no doubt, familiar with topology, the study of geometric forms (more or less); and if you’re a computer user, you’d be well-versed in iconography, the use of icons rather than verbal cues or comments. Well, if you deconstruct icons to their simplest topological forms, what if you find out that they’re actually alive? What if there’s a universe of living topology unrelated to our universe, but accessible to us (and vice-versa) through icons? And icons can be both useful (good) and bad (the iconoclasma); they can show us the way to the stars. I won’t attempt to say much more about this story; you just have to read it yourself. I think I’ll be a while figuring it out. Well done, Hanuš!
Abra Staffin-Wiebe’s “Overwintering Habits of the North American Mermaid” is brief enough to qualify as flash fiction. And it works!
“Escaping the Ogre,” by Ruth Berman, is the sole poem in the magazine and, while it uses the tropes of fantasy, is about a bit more than you would think. Unfortunately, many youngsters who think they’re escaping an ogre are actually descending into something worse, in my opinion.
Allegory, all is allegory. Or maybe not. Robert Reed’s story, “Every Color of Invisible,” about a modern-day or future Lakota (Sioux) named Raven and his uncle, is written in third-person from Raven’s point of view. I may have read other Raven stories; Reed has published enough of them—in these pages (F&SF’s, that is)—to have made a book, Raven Dream (now available for Kindle). This is a new story which, even if you’ve never read any of these, will tell you all you need to know about Raven and his uncle. They are The People, and we non-People are Demons. Our world and Raven’s often mingle, but they are separate worlds. Reed never disappoints; this story—even when it’s a bit confusing—makes a lot of sense and is extremely sympathetic to a young shaman who has to learn to use parts of our world even when he wants to remain apart. Very nicely written.
Dutch writer Bo Balder continues this strong issue with “The Island and Its Boy,” a story that at first glance could be set somewhere in the Canadian north among the Inuit, but is a little bit stranger than that. She’s created a milieu where the people and the islands they live on are interdependent; that is, the islands have personalities, and minds, and are able to move and to birth new islands. In this story, Inu’s people have lived on an island for many years (Inu himself is eleven), and every year the island journeys around the polar region. This year, a new island has been born, and the people must move from the island that has been their home before it begins its journey southward; they will settle on the new island. But Inu and his brothers have no intention of leaving the island they love. This is really well written and imaginative.
“This Constant Narrowing” by Geoff Ryman is a strange one. First off, the editor had to warn readers that it contained bad language. Gee, aren’t we mostly grownups here? (I can’t remember: did Dhalgren come with a warning?) Secondly, it proposes a world (expressly LA/southern California) where all the women on the planet have disappeared. A great vanishing; a great mystery. So not only did all the men become gay, but shooting someone you hoped to have sex with (a superficial wound) is considered “foreplay.” And from there it gets kind of weird. I’m not sure whether I liked this one or not; I’m not sure whether I think it succeeded on its own terms.
Nick diChario has written a new Italian fable about the Baron Francesco Il Bonario (the good-natured) and his beautiful daughter Levita, who live in the Villaggio di Ombre (Village of the Shadow). She, ever since she was a small child, has suffered from a strange malady—unless she daily eats a black apple from a tree that grows only on the seashore near the castle—will float off into the sky unless tethered. Prince Antonio, whose father is the King, hears of this beautiful daughter, and comes to court her. In the tradition of fables, things both good and bad happen. An enjoyable little romp.
And, finally, we come to “When We Flew Together Through the Ice,” by J.R. Dawson. Although this is well written, it’s a very scary story. A mother who regrets being a farmer’s wife on some planet, a woman who was once a pilot, finds an excuse—three comets coming to that planet—to take her two girls and run away to space with them. Not telling them, until later, that her husband was not a good person to live with; with no means of support, the three became scavengers, living off whatever they could steal. But the one girl loses a foot in a battle with other scavengers, and the protagonist is forced to wear a chip—C9—in her head because she was “hard to control.” But the chip malfunctions, and although it reads somewhat like a space fable, the ending is far from a storybook ending. Chilling, and well done.
All in all, I give this a very strong four flibbets! ¤¤¤¤!
Comments? Questions? Complaints or compliments? Comment here or on Facebook, or wherever you found the column. I welcome all comments! (And you don’t have to agree with me to comment, either.) 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 year!