Oh, you caught me out. I didn’t think I could fool you for long. Yes, this is my last column… of the 2010 decade! Next month, January 2020, will be my seventh consecutive year of writing for Amazing Stories® online! I hope you’ve enjoyed my writing as much as I have enjoyed being a part of Steve Davidson’s reboot of this famous magazine, and I hope to be able to do this for a long time to come. For my last column of the 2010s (and 2019 in particular), I’ve chosen to review two very good genre works, one an excellent magazine, and the other an excellent semi-noir full-on SF work by a terrific author I’ve reviewed before, and (as the cover above says, a New York Times notable author). I’m talking about Lisa Mason’s new novel Chrome, first (Figure 2).
I hesitate to characterize it, because it’s so much more than a short description can convey, but in my mind it stands out as a science-fiction homage, in part, to the noir books and movies of the forties and fifties, only brought forth into a future time a quarter-millennium from now. There’s no world-weary Robert Mitchum-type ‘tec as a protagonist; rather, our hero is a beautiful half-human, half puma thief named Luna Lightfoot, who makes her main living as what we might call a video star. Millions of people back on Earth pay for the privilege of watching her at home while she eats, sleeps, and carries out her home life for their voyeuristic pleasure. She also hangs our with the rich and famous.
Luna lives on an artificial planetoid, called Chrome, at one of Earth’s LaGrange points, put there 250 years ago by one of Earth’s wealthiest and greediest corporations, the Emirk group. (If you want to know where Emirk came from, the name refers to a tributary of one of Earth’s big rivers, according to the author. When you get to that part, you’ll understand.) Back in our time (and this is true), a Chinese scientist claims to have gene-edited a couple of children using the CRISPR method, which is sort of like gene cut-and-pasting. Scientists around the world—and, finally, his own government—decried the use of CRISPR on humans. However, in this book, Emirk started experimenting (at first, openly, but then, thanks to public and governmental outcries, covertly) with “improving” the human genome by adding genes from practically every oxygen-breathing species of animal on the planet. Spending billions to build Chrome, Emirk’s experiments were moved there and continued. Human subjects were given or sold by outlaw governments and factions to Emirk’s scientists; and now there exists a whole society of human/animal interbreeds, called “blends,” on Chrome. Humans can not live there anymore, thanks to a plague that killed off (and continues to kill off) any unmodified humans, yet Emirk still owns Chrome, and figures it owns all the inhabitants too.
Luna attends a party given by Bunny Hedgway, one of Chrome’s glitterati in order to steal an artifact from Bunny’s treasure room, but while she was engaged in this theft, witnessed the murder of Chrome’s prima ballerina, an ostrich Blend named Zena Kinski, by an unidentified Blend who was wearing a wolf costume, but who may not have been a wolf. Because she was witnessed on the roof of Bunny’s place at the time of the murder, Luna needs to clear herself and find out who the Blend is who actually killed Zena. In the process, Luna finds herself becoming familiar with Chrome’s criminal underworld, and gains enemies as well as new friends and allies. One of those is the tortoise Blend Terralina Rustabrin, who is about to be bond-mated to a Prince of tortoise Blends. (Blends are not legally humans; therefore, cannot marry, according to Emirk corporation. So “bond-mating” is their substitute.) Although Terralina’s eyesight is poor, she happens to be close to several significant happenings related to the murder, and actually saw Luna come down off Bunny’s roof.
In this book, Lisa has created a world and a society that mirrors our own in many respects; although we have no (to the best of my knowledge) actual Blends on Earth, corporations and governments on this planet are actively trying to (and in some cases have succeeded) treat humans as if they were Blends, or property. And you can just bet that these kinds of experiments will happen somewhere on Earth if they aren’t already happening. Like what happens to most enslaved people everywhere, many Blends are rich or getting rich by actively helping Emirk subjugate their fellow blends. There are Blend geniuses, one of whom created the “Tatts,” a type of tattoo that acts as a communications device, archival device, amanuensis (a blend of Alexa and Google in some ways) and other things. It’s a fully-realized society that takes some of the attributes of the animal parts of Blends and applies what those traits might mean to humans who have them.
And as for the noir mystery part; whether Luna solves her own problem (of being a suspect and a fugitive from the killer(s)), you’ll just have to read the book to find out. I really appreciate the fact that the ending is not a “pat ending.” I suspect Lisa may someday turn out a sequel to Chrome. Anyway, I liked this book and recommend it;it’s available in Kindle format in most countries. (Just FYI, I’ve stopped rating books and movies with stars or “flibbets.” From here on I’ll tell you if I liked or disliked it, and whether I would recommend a friend (you) read it. Rating books or movies is like comparing different types of things; even if they’re all genre, they’re not alike enough for me to feel comfortable doing so.)
And now we come to Gordon Van Gelder’s F&SF (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, if you didn’t already know). Gordon is the publisher, and C.C. Finlay is the editor. From its beginnings, F&SF has been one of the few magazines that successfully combines the two genre worlds of fantasy and science fiction. (We won’t get into subgenres here; although there are overlaps, the two are broadly defined as stuff that’s plausible scientifically—or at least plausible enough for your to suspend your disbelief—and stuff that can’t, or won’t happen in a strictly scientific tome. Fair enough?) There are 12 fictional items (as opposed to the book reviews, science stuff, editorials, etc.) in this particular issue and, just to be different, I think I’ll review them in order from the shortest to the longest. And I’ll tell you whether I liked and/or recommended each piece as I go.
We start with “Swing,” a poem by Jane Yolen who, as befits a well-known fantasy author, is examining the swing between birth and death from a fantasy perspective. She comes up with a conclusion and a question. Well done.
In “Evergreen,” M. Rickert brings the ghosts of Christmas alive. Whether we can see them or only feel them, our own Christmas ghosts are probably somewhere just waiting for us to notice them. There won’t be Ghosts of Christmas Past, or Present, or Future like Scrooge’s; but perhaps, something more personal will happen to you during this season. Well written, and it made me feel somewhat nostalgic with only a week to go before Christmas Day.
Rebecca Zahabi’s “It Never Snows in Snowtown” is a moody little piece, but you don’t realize it until it’s too late and you can’t pull back. Maybe I’m just dense today, but I don’t understand what the story means; that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the writing. In some ways it reminds me of Robert Aickman. It’s a dark one, but well written.
“Shucked,” by Sam J. Miller, is another dark one. As the forenote says, it might be the author commenting on the actual unknowableness of those you care most about. It starts, more or less, with a scene of oyster shucking; I don’t care for oysters, but the author’s ideas reminded me of various movie roles, somewhere between Matt Damon and Kevin McCarthy. You’ll know what I mean when you read it. Scary good.
Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “Rejoice, My Brothers and Sisters” is ultimately, like Lisa Mason’s book Chrome, about what it is to be human and/or what it is to be free. Imagine a world where there are no humans; a far-flung future where the only people are painstaiking recreations of a not-well-remembered past in an enclave specifically designed for them. An enclave that has been built from the ground up because human beings—with their awkward, ungainly bodies of flesh—can’t exist as we know them in the bright new world of the future. Gripping and, thank Ghu, not possible yet.
“Knit Three, Save Four,” by Marie Vibbert, is another in a very long line of science fiction quandaries: to save the ship you must kill the passengers, or there’s only enough oxygen for two out of the four people aboard, or Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations.” This story partakes a little of the last one, as a stowaway on a cargo ship discovers that aside from the usual “stowaways get spaced out the airlock,” the ship she’s stowed away on can neither dock nor take on extra air, so everyone’s gonna die without a solution. Her “pass the time while stowed away” hobby saves the day (note the title), probably a first for SF. Good SF, and kinda plausible.
Charlotte Ashley’s “The Joy in Wounding” was written to explain the somewhat mystical-looking Bob Eggleton cover for this issue. Another writer might have tried to do something that wouldn’t have worked half as well as this, which is a take on Greek myth. Imagine a Greece where the gods are real and magic works—for all we know, that’s how it really was. (I’m kidding, of course.) For thirty years the three sisters—Psykhe (the youngest), Lallange (the oldest), and Melantho have been wandering after killing Eros, the god who had taken an unwilling Psykhe as his wife. Melantho has been accompanied by her little wind, Zephyr. They are following Eros’ floating palace, Fteroto, which has been drifting hither and yon, loosing all sorts of troubles on the world with its “water of passion” and without Eros to guide and control it. Melantho and Lallange are warriors—Lallange with her javelins and Melantho with her sword—and even Psykhe is armed, but Fteroto has come to rest in an area with only goatherds. No warriors are needed here, but kidders and midwifes would be welcome. At least that’s what they think until the mythical feces hit the mythical fan. From what little I retain of my Greek mythology this rings pretty true. Nicely done.
“A Hand at the Service of Darkness” is another in Gregor Hartmann’s series of loosely-connected stories of the Stability Police on the planet Zephyr. Inspector Philippa Song is forced to cooperate with an outside agency, the Directorate of Special Operations (DSO) on the main planet of Tenser. It’s roughly equivalent of a city cop being forced to work with the CIA. What’s worse, the DSO cop is going to covertly kill a man who’s supposedly an anarchist assassin and make it look like a rival political faction did it. How Son manages this is the crux of the story, and it’s both interesting and well written.
James Morrow chimes in with “Bird Thou Never Wert,” a funny little tale about how some genre “lit’rature” is writ. (The alert reader will connect this title with Shelley’s “To a Skylark.”) The bird under question here is a golden eagle which is actually a spirit from legend named Garuda. It’s well written, and funny. I was kind of sad when it ended; Morrow straddles a very thin line in SF/F humour which often under lesser writers becomes quite heavy-handed. I found it enjoyable.
Speaking of birds, Andy Stewart has a story called “The Vicious World of Birds” in this issue. It’s cited as a mixture of science fiction and fantasy with a generous shading of horror. But you know what? I don’t think the story actually has what I’d consider a “horror” component. Maybe a bit of a thriller element, like what might have appeared on the TV show of the same name (anyone remember Boris Karloff as host?), but it doesn’t fit my idea of horror. It’s about a Texas family (mostly all grown), not a terribly close-knit one, coming together for Christmas after the mother has died, and the father is considering remarriage to someone the family doesn’t think is suitable. The protagonist, who is nameless (or I missed his name) is an ornithologist, and thinks of his family in bird terms; for example, his father is a white tern, the “world’s laziest bird.” His stepmother-to-be is a whiskey jack; his mother was a cherry-throated tanager in her coffin, a common loon when she was alive (because of her song, not because she was loony). But all is not what it appears to be, and when the Texan family is snowed in, strange things happen in the house and yard. A very interesting story with a not unexpected ending. I liked it.
Michael Libling tells us “How I Came to Write Fantasy,” (a story, not an essay), in a tale four hundred years in the making. No, not our protagonist, but a boy he met in Montreal, Jacob/Jake Ahren, who claimed to be that old. Our protagonist (again with the no name… (d’ya think it’s easy, Libling, to write a review—or even a precis—of several no-name protagonist stories?) It’s a story that started in the Netherlands, involved witches, witch-burning (here went Jacob’s mother), and a town called Oudewater, where Jacob became apprentice to the local heksenwaager, or witch-weigher. Remember that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where it’s scientifically worked out that if a woman weighs the same as a duck, she must be a witch? Well, it was like that in Oudewater. So thanks to that job, Jacob becomes cursed to be 19 until he finds the girl of his dreams and kisses her on the lips. (Shades of Sleeping Beauty, eh?) The story is long, and somewhat involved, and nothing in it turns out the way you think (okay, the way I thought it would) it will. A nice little romp.
And, finally, Matthew Hughes, fresh from the triumph of getting his chef d’oevre, his masterwork (What the Wind Brings, available in trade paperback and ebook on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and other venues) published, comes back with another tale of Baldemar, the wizard’s henchman, who has recently been conscripted into the Duke’s Eyes And Ears, a sort of secret service in city Vanderoy. A man has been killed, a servant of a highly-placed woman, and something stolen. Baldemar and Vunt, another Eye and Ear, are sent to discover what has occurred and who is responsible. From the writer who brought you “Sternutative Sortilege” last in F&SF, comes this tale of underhanded doings that could have come from the pens of Jack Vance or perhaps Fritz Leiber. Hughes is a worthy writer to take up the mantle of those two, and this story, with all its complications, is a fun one to read. (I also detect more than a hint of Pratchett here, too.) Although this particular story comes to an end, it’s obvious that the writer has further adventures for Baldemar and Vunt in mind. Highly recommended! All in all, a very good issue indeed!
Next month (next year!) I’ll be following this review up with the January/February issue of F&SF; it’s one magazine that never disappoints me. I will also have a review of William Gibson’s latest, Agency, which is a followup to his popular book The Peripheral (which is becoming a limited series on Amazon, by the creators of Westworld!). I have my ARC (advanced reading copy) in hand, and am really looking forward to both book and series. Plus a lot more to come in the next year! Don’t forget to follow Amazing® the print magazine, too!
Comments on my column are welcome. You can comment here, or on Facebook. All your comments, good or bad, positive or negative, are welcome! (Just keep it polite, okay?) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next decade!