Contrary to popular belief, I’m not old enough to have read the very first F&SF (Figure 2) when it was new. When it came out, I was two years old, going on 3. (However, since he’s had fiction or non-fiction in practically every SF magazine ever printed, I’m guessing Robert Silverberg may have done so. Okay, I’m joking; he’s not that old either, but he has been very prolific over his working lifetime.)
At any rate, welcome to my review of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF)’s 70th anniversary issue. As promised on the cover (Figure 1), it’s an all-star issue! In my review, there’s one part that is not fiction, and that’s the di Filippo book column, though it was sent to me as part of the fiction. I thought, at first, that it was fake.
I’m going to start off by looking at the longest story/novelet, which is Michael Moorcock’s “Kabul.” Tom Dubrowski, the protagonist, is an ex-NATO soldier (I think; antecedents are unclear), now part of a small cavalry unit of mixed origin in Afghanistan: “mostly Zaporizhian Cossacks, but we also had large numbers of Uzbek, Turkmen, and Tajik riders as well as a few miscellaneous others picked up along the way. In our long trek across a continent, we had gathered remnants of UN and NATO Special Forces, some Sikhs, and a few local bandits on foot who saw safety in numbers.” Afghanistan is in ruins. “Dubrowski” is an alias, but our guy is sticking with it, even though his previous undercover identity is no longer necessary.
There has been a nuclear exchange, though between which countries is not clear: Lahore and Amritsar (both in Punjab) are no more. Resultant earthquakes have destabilized much of this part of the world. Tom is trying to help guide the unit to Kabul.
In this post-apocalyptic novelet, much of the world is destroyed and/or destabilized: London lies partly in ruins; and Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi have seceded and now call themselves “The New Confederacy.” (No word on Canada, though at least one of this troop is an ex-Mountie.) In fact, there is little difference between our “heroes” and the ragged bands of Afghani rebels, “Tallies” (Taliban), bandits, and whomever else roams this devastated land; Moorcock seems to be making the point that, since the world is pretty much in the same shape, there is little use in doing more than surviving. It’s depressing as hell, yet extremely well written—and who would expect less from Moorcock? This is his first appearance in F&SF, by the way.
“Erase, Erase, Erase” by Elizabeth Bear is another long one. Not as concrete in time or place as the Moorcock; the protagonist is slowly coming apart. Not just mentally (as many of us are these days), but physically as well; bits and pieces are falling off, though they do usually stick when put back into place. In an effort to escape her past, she has been erasing it; she has kept a journal for years, but has made a practice of burning the old journals once they’re filled.
At one time she joined a cult, but it turned out to be a bad idea; her boyfriend Joshua, who she was with for eight years, was a revolutionary who didn’t care if people got hurt. People are not important to revolutionaries of that type. In time he replaced her with another, younger woman. In time she came back to writing a journal, driven by her former love for fountain pens and coloured ink. As she began writing again, she began to remember herself and her past; she began to regain solidarity to a point. Part of her dissolution was a lack of commitment; to the revolution, to Joshua, to life. As she decided to journal and to commit, she became a part of life again. Well written.
Kelly Link’s story, “The White Cat’s Divorce,” is a modern fairy tale set partly in Colorado, about a very rich man who wants to remain young. This man is as rich as Croesus and can have almost anything he wants, but what he wants most is to remain young. He is on his umpty-umpth wife, but has three sons from his first marriage. He senses death (or rather, Death) approaching in the guise of a fourth son, and realizes that he can’t feel young, despite all the vitamins, beauty treatments, blood transfusions, etc., while his sons are near. So he sends them on a quest, mainly to get them out of his sight for a year; they are to find the world’s smallest, hypoallergenic, friendliest dog. He promises to make whichever son finds the correct dog his heir. The rich man is not the story’s protagonist, however; his youngest son is. The fairy tale works out for the protagonist, that’s all I’m gonna say here. Somewhat funny, and somewhat pointed.
“Last Human in the Olympics” by Mary Soon Lee is a poem of eight couplets detailing how the last human, literally, in the Olympics manages. Short, but hopeful.
Esther Friesner’s “The Wrong Badger” is, as you might have guessed, a somewhat humourous piece. How to describe a Friesner epic in full swing? “Auntie Esther” (a sobriquet from the pages of Pulphouse Reports) has taken the idea of Disneyland to another level, with her idea of EnglandLand, where the Ministry of Silly Walks performs every fifteen minutes, where Sherlock Holmes stalks Jack the Ripper, where the food carts sell Bangers-and-Mash on a bun. It’s a place where Americans can experience an “authentic” British experience without the hassle of air travel, passports, and all that stuff. And it’s so popular it’s cutting into tourism in the true England. How to deal with that? Auntie has the answer. Funny Friesner for real.
“American Gold Mine,” by Paolo Bacigalupi, is partly about today and partly about tomorrow. Heidi Hallenbach is a newscaster talking-head and a bit more; she has usurped the place of the man who hired her, and is a national or international figure. She stokes the fires of a nation on the brink, under the Fox-inspired name of entertainment posing as news. You have a grievance? Feel you’re a victim? Heidi will put you on the air; if there’s a riot somewhere, Heidi will air it. For all the disenfranchised who now want some of their own back, Heidi will facilitate your strike, your protest, your riot. All in the name of news… instead of all the news thats fit to print, Heidi airs all the news that’s fit to inspire hatred or rage. Is there any surprise when the riots hit Heidi’s building while her show is on? But she has one more surprise waiting for the rioters. A chilling little extrapolation that could well be our upcoming reality.
“Little Inn on the Jianghu,” by Y. M. Pang, is about the ordinary people in Wuxia movies, rather than about the Jianghu types that get all the screen time. Cheng Weimin is an innkeeper who’s getting extremely tired—not to mention broke—of all the fights in his inn by these sword-wielding levitating hero/bad guy types who don’t care how many bowls or cups get broken, not to mention chairs, tables and who knows what else, by the constant fights in the inn. After Li Xilan smashes three tables that were supposed to be unbreakable, Cheng decides to advertise for help in getting some money out of the fighter to pay for the damage. A sword-bearing warrior woman named Huan Yifeng, who wants Xilan because he killed her father, answers the call.
The story itself is rather like a Wuxia movie or novel, in that Yifeng has made a list of the places that Jianghu types frequent: bamboo forests, devil-queen courts, inns, Jianghu gatherings, and she decides to take Cheng with her. He doesn’t much like heights, however, and the quinggong leaps she makes from bamboo top to bamboo top (carrying him) often cause him to lose his lunch. But by remembering the Wuxia rules, Cheng’s life eventually returns to what is normal for him. A lot of fun, whether you’re familiar with Chinese Wuxia movies or not!
Jeff Crandall’s “Halstead IV” is a poem about “the planet that Jack built,” along the lines of “This is the house that Jack built.” The planet was built with slave labour; and the poem has something to say about an empire that allows that sort of thing. And what can be done about it. The word “genocide” comes into it. Further, deponent sayeth not.
Maureen McHugh’s “Under the Hill” is a fantasy, not SF. McHugh says that it’s autobiographical, except that none of it (save the beech tree and the delicious roast beef sandwiches) is true. You decide. Parts of it feel real to me. Amelia Catherine is accepted to a small but prestigious liberal-arts college—Burkman—that she applied to but never expected to get into; she’s not a joiner, knows nothing about sports, and is a bit overweight, but she hopes to change all that. Her folks call her Amy. She wants people to call her “Cat,” wants to lose some pounds, and wants to become part of the social scene. When she meets her roommate, Cady, who’s into lacrosse, all her expectations go out the window. Nothing is as she expects it, especially The Hill—Burkman Hill—which lies at the edge of campus. In orientation, the freshmen are told that Burkman has an agreement with the Seelie Court, and Burkman Hill, where the Fair Folk live, is out of bounds for the college. Over four years, including a semester in Germany, Amy changes; like most people, some for the better, and some more in the direction of Thomas The Rhymer. (If you Google it, you might understand that.) You might also know without Googling, what parts of this story feel real. Excellent work.
In “Plumage From Pegasus,” by Paul Di Filippo, is a review of a novel from the early part of the 20th century; one that has finally been accepted by the Establishment as being real and not a fabrication (as several were) by Verne’s son Michael. Verne? Oh, yes, did I forget to tell you about the novel? It’s a collaboration between H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, called Flora Columbia: Goddess of a New Age. (At first, I assumed this review was fiction, but I’m coming to the realization this is an actual book.) As most SF fans know, Verne and Wells were not on speaking terms due to Verne’s insistence on using known scientific terms and methods (gunpowder and a giant cannon) to get men to the moon. He disdained Wells’ “cavorite” as being nonscientific and said so, publicly. Wells, taken aback by this attack, secretly journeyed to Paris and confronted Verne; after some initial uneasiness between the pair, they decided to collaborate on a novel. The collaboration was not a success; they were unable to reach a happy medium in writing, and the manuscript languished in Verne’s files until unearthed by his son. It took years, due to Michael’s habit of writing novels and claiming his father had done them, to authenticate the book as Verne’s and Wells’ own. It’s an amusing conceit, and well written. I would love to read it, no matter how bad it is.
“BookSavr,” by Ken Liu, is a story about the possibilities, good and bad, inherent in online publishing. As of now, there are literally hundreds of unknown writers e-publishing (and audio-publishing) thousands of books in our genre alone; heavens knows how many total there are in toto. I haven’t sampled many of these unknown writers, but of the ones I have looked at, many actually approach readability. What if…?
Liu looks at the possibilities of reader apps that not only check dictionary definitions as most do now, but that will be also “reformatting text for screen readers and speed-readers, automatically pulling in Wikimedia images as illustrations, fact-checking (considering that virtually everything…is fiction, I’m not sure why this exists, but whatever), enhancing erotica (of course), and so on”…and an app or plugin called “BookSavr” that “purports to help readers by using AI to rewrite sections of books that are problematic in various ways, such as lack of diversity; poor gender, racial, and sexual-orientation representation; mishandling consent, etc.” I’m using the author’s words here so I don’t accidentally misrepresent these apps and/or plugins. The idea of BookSavr is so truly awful for me as an author that my mind is boggled; without a doubt it’s a real possibility. To have my work bowdlerized by a plugin to fit someone else’s idea of how the story should go is, in my mind, horrible. Yes, writing is a dialogue between the writer and the reader, but to have the reader tell the writer how he/she should write is stupid.
Yet it is coming; Liu’s little tale is all too real. As the story says, “Authors have to accept that they are no longer figures of authority. In the long run, authors cannot win by fighting against their readers.” Well done, yet horrific.
“The Light on Eldoreth” by Nick Wolven is a tale of the future told in the language of the nineteenth (or even earlier) century. Maybe a future Jane Austen or one like her could be narrating this tale of the manners of an Eldoreth, a “super-Earth,” where everything (gender, physical form, even species or humanity) can be determined between birth and maturity. Rigglesim, the narrator, is visiting Kitzfin’s mansion with a view to marrying Rigglesim’s daughter, Jeljorea, to Kitzfin’s son, Igbon. The author goes into great detail about the social structure of the time, but ultimately, for me, the story really didn’t go anywhere. Maybe it’s just me.
Amanda Hollander’s first published story, “Madness Afoot,” also partakes of the writing style of an earlier century, as it’s written as if it were a series of letters between Orsolya, a member of a rather inbred royal family, and her husband. It appears that her brother has met a mysterious masked woman at the Royal Ball, and is going to marry her and make her queen; but the only problem is that she has vanished. And nobody knows who she is or where she is. The only clue left is… a shoe! And nothing will do but that Prince Otto will search the entire kingdom for the woman whose foot fits that particular shoe; and his sister must accompany him. This is a new, but more realistic twist on a fairy tale most of us are familiar with. Pretty good for a first published story!
“Ghost Ships,” by Michael Swanwick, is another supposedly autobiographical story; the author’s wife told him it was an essay rather than a story. It’s essentially the story of the protagonist’s (whether this is actually the author or not, I’ll let you decide) College reunion. As a New Englander who graduated from William and Mary College in Virginia, the protagonist often felt out of place, but he was remembering some old friends of his, Rabbit and Sam the Townie. He remembered the time they had been driving along by the sea and had suddenly seen a couple of old sailing vessels with sailors dressed in 18th-century dress; they had belatedly turned around to watch what they presumed was a movie being made, only when they got back to the spot there were no ships and no sailors. Later, the author reminisced about impermanence. It’s more a mood piece than an actual story; or an essay, as the author’s wife said. I liked it.
And for the final story in this issue, we have what may be the late Gardner Dozois’ last published story—with the exception of the collaboration with Michael Swanwick on a novel, The City Under The Stars, which will be published next year. This story’s called “Homecoming.” It’s one of those “generic fantasy” stories that are very popular, where no hint of an infrastructure is apparent, and all the readers are supposed to assume that there’s a country, a ruler, a pre-Industrial Revolution society, plus wizardry or something very like it. I’m sure you’ve read a hundred stories with that kind of setup. The old man, named Entwaine, didn’t look like a wizard; he wore no wizard’s hat, yet he carried an iron-bound staff. He came into the village and took a room at the inn, going out daily to explore the area, and coming back in the evening to his solitary meal and mug of ale. Yet there was something about him. Dozois uses this generic setting to tell a story about endings (and maybe beginnings) in a very effective way. He will be missed, both as author and anthologist.
The rest of the magazine has the usual; you can see the non-fiction contents at https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/. Quite a good issue; get yours before the November/December issue debuts in a week or two.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Amazing Stories is now 93 years old; Analog’s (Astounding) next issue will celebrate its 90th. You can view all of the covers for these and other magazines here; you can research the contents of individual issues here.