For my 291st column for Amazing Stories® Online, I happily give you the May-June 2020 Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, otherwise known as F&SF! I’ve been reading this magazine for years (and reviewing it for more than a few), and it never fails to please me! Plus, I’m happy to say that two of my friends have been editors: Avram Davidson, back in the ‘60s, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in the ‘90s. Plus, we’re about the same age (okay, I’m two years older; F&SF started in 1949, and I started in January of 1947).
Let’s start with a short poem by Jane Yolen, “Mab’s Wedding.” In Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet), Mab is an insubstantial little fairy, whose carriage is made of insect wings and spiderwebs, and she brings fulfillment in dreams—usually disappointing the dreamers when they wake and have none of the things they desired (she’s also called the fairy midwife). In other works, Mab is queen of the Unseelie court (the dark fairies), and is described as cold, cruel, and icy. Yolen’s Mab takes more of the latter character, taking a Year King who will live like a king for one year then be disposed of—in Yolen’s view, laid away in a coffin forever. She’s also a metaphor in this poem; I’ll let you discover what kind. A lot packed into a short, excellent poem.
Tom Cool and Bruce Sterling are up next, with a very cyberpunkish story called “Hornet and Butterfly.” If that sounds a bit Asian to you, you’d be right; it’s a futuristic semi-apocalyptic story about a post-human called The Hornet. Surviving as a collector/dealer in antiques on a giant floating mostly-plastic rubbish heap called The Raft somewhere off China, The Hornet has a military past, but when a typhoon hits, The Raft begins breaking apart, and he is forced to use his miltary skills to kill for survival. Thanks to a large human Australian called Ozzman, he meets the fresh Butterfly, straight out of her cocoon—neither human nor metahuman, faster, smarter, stronger than The Hornet. China takes this opportunity to clean up The Raft and assimilate its inhabitants, and the Hornet is taken up. The Butterfly has made her way into the Chinese power structure. The rest you will have to find out by reading it.
We move from postmodern to fantasy with “Another F*cken Fairy Tale” by M. Rickert. Part of this story—a big part—is about the trials of growing old, something I’m beginning to realize myself; the rest of it is about the compensations one makes for being old. And the compensations of being old. Oh, yeah, and there’s another f*ckin’ fairy (a very small one) involved. (But why “f*cken” I don’t know. Maybe it’s ‘cos I’m old.) A sweet little tale.
Richard Bowes’ “In the Eyes of Jack Saul” talks about England in the 19th century, and about a famous male courtesan who openly admitted in court that he was homosexual; the first to do so. As a “Mary-Ann”—a male who satisfied the sexual urges of other males for money—he consorted with men who could not openly admit they were gay (of course, “gay” wasn’t used in that sense in the late 19th century). Two of his clients were responsible for his meeting someone you probably will remember, but not remember in the way he is portrayed in this story. A terrific merger of fact and fable; this story also reveals some of what can happen when people are forced to hide their true selves from society’s prying eyes.
Speaking of eyes, “Eyes of the Forest” by Ray Nayler introduces a new word (to me, at least): biosemiotics, which is “a field that mixes semiotics and biology to study prelinguistic meaning-making.” When the Earth people fled to the unnamed planet in this story, they brought their own language describing things on this planet in Earthly terms. The caves provided a place for settlements where the people from dead Earth could live and grow. But the wayfinders, those who go between settlements carrying messages and supplies, cannot afford to see the planet in Earthly terms: when you use a word that describes something wrongly, like “predator” instead of “scavenger”—since all life there is symbiotic—you see the world wrongly, and make yourself vulnerable. Sedef is being trained by Mauled By Mistake in how to survive, when the accident happens; she must make it back to the depot to get the nanobot survival packets to heal Mauled By Mistake’s wounds. But she’ll never make it unless she can see as the forest sees. A really well-done lesson in how words can shape our thinking.
Paul di Filippo‘s Plumage From Pegasus column is called “Faster, Publisher! Binge! Binge!” (The title is an obvious takeoff on the title of Russ Meyer’s film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) It’s all about readers who demand series books; in fact, who are addicted to them. (The smallest unit of addiction is called a “Tolkien,” consisting of a trilogy.) I have to admit that I have had—it comes and goes—a mild form of that from time to time. His solution to this kind of addiction is both brutal and elegant. I will say no more.
“An Indian Love Call, by Joseph Bruchac, may be based on a traditional Native American tale, as Bruchac himself is a Native storyteller, who admittedly often inserts or adapts old stories into new ones. He also inserted “cryptozoology” into this story; the first time I heard that word it was from Grover Krantz, who taught at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, where I lived. Krantz was notorious on the subject of “Bigfoot” (or “Big People,” according to Bruchac)—and even more notorious because his solution for getting a specimen of that elusive beast was to kill it, in opposition to every other cryptozoology researcher. But I digress. In this comedic tale, our narrator Billy and his “mad scientist” friend Arlin are tasked with finding a mate for a female Big Person (named Musha). Full of references and interesting Native lore, this story tickled my funny bone.
Mary Soon Lee‘s “First Contact” is a poem about—guess what?—first contact with aliens. It doesn’t go the way anyone has guessed. Fairly short, but sweet, as the saying goes.
“Warm Math,” by Rich Larson, is a new look at an old story—the title is the clue—Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations.” There’s a reminder in here of Lee Child’s book One Shot (the basis for the movie Jack Reacher with Tom Cruise as the eponymous character). How far would you go to survive? The Zek from the latter book/movie is a survivor from a Siberian prison camp who will do literally anything; the narrator from Larson’s story, Rozier, is a maintenance man on a starship that blew up. The numbers are clear; there are two people in an escape pod made for one, and they need to shed some mass, but there’s not enough left to shed. An interesting take on Godwin’s story, with an unexpected twist at the end. (No, it’s not all a dream….)
“Stepsister,” by Leah Cypess, takes us out of our “hard SF” genre back to the fantasy genre. (Remember, this is The Magazine of F&SF!) An entirely new take on an old familiar tale, this is the story of King Ciar, and Ciar’s boyhood companion, and Ciar’s queen, Ella. But this story takes place five years after the event we all remember, and involves fairies, a spell, and a stepsister. And that’s all I can tell you about this, even if you understand my cryptic hints; in fairytales, everyone is always purely good or purely evil, and in real stories, people are seldom purely anything. People are complex, and tales are simple, and the truth is always more complex than the fairytale. Great story, and that’s all I’ll say about that.
Rebecca Zahabi‘s “Birds Without Wings” takes us back to the SF side; Zoe and Alex are young British people hitchhiking their way through Europe. As the story opens, they’re in Spain, heading towards Bilbao for the night. But it’s harder to hitchhike these days because of the fakes, the “shifters.” It appears the shifters have always been with us, but since they’re exact duplicates of the people they replace, at least physically, nobody has caught on until recently. So Zoe and Alex wait at a Spanish layby at night, in the rain, for a ride. Alex speaks some Spanish, Zoe not so much. Like me, you can probably predict the story, but it’s well written and, I think, worth reading.
Robert Reed’s latest for F&SF is “Who Carries the World.” I was at the Writers of the Future ceremony in Seattle where Reed won his WoF award…it was the Grand Prize, if I remember correctly. Who knew this contest would launch such a prolific author’s career? (Unfortunately, my WoF Anthology, containing autographs of most of the winners, got water-damaged in a basement flood when our water-heater broke.) Anyway, this is a really well-done story which could be a bit hard to describe. It’s far enough in the future that humans have abandoned the Earth, it seems, for star-traveling; all humans are now possessed of ceramic skulls and bio-ceramic, augmented brains; and are, for all intents and purposes, immortal. There is a Great Ship headed for Pluto, containing all sorts of habitats, one of which is a reef containing semi-sentient glass organisms. Perri, the subject of this story, is exploring the reef, when there is an accident—an avalanche of broken glass, that punctures and destroys Perri’s body. It’s a small Death, Aurora_Nominee_Logo_2_inch and one that he will recover from, given time. But his brain and the pieces of his body are recovered from the reef and the broken glass, by She Who Carries the World. The story, and how Perri is eventually back together, are very lyrically written. It’s pure SF, but partakes in some ways of the styles of Vance, Cordwainer Smith, and others; and therefore its own kind of SF. I definitely recommend this one.
And finally, we come to “Byzantine,” by Holly Messinger, a fantasy that takes place at the fall of Byzantium and the Byzantine Empire—the last days of Constantinople in the 15th century. The narrator is a spirit, or to a Christian, a demon—to an Arab a djinn or ifrit. He/it (I’ll call it “he” for convenience) feeds on the essence of people, like all his kind—the pain, the pleasure, the blood. The sultan Mehmet II has ambitions, and wants to extend his rule, the Ottoman Empire, over all that is left of the Byzantine Empire. But the last Emperor, Constantine XI, has seen his empire shrink to a pitiful shred of what it originally was and, secure in his belief that Constantinople’s walls would hold as they had since the time of Constantine the Great, refuses the sultan’s demands for surrender. We see the protagonist through the ifrit’s eyes; he is a young apprentice to a physician (and the physician’s bed-slave) who has more than a trace of power himself. The story traces the boy’s rise as Constantinople is besieged and falls, thanks to the gunpowder and cannons that those walls had never faced before. A very interesting interpretation of history, and a fairly explicit fantasy. And now you know—if you listen to Dr. Demento—why it’s “Istanbul, not Constantinople/Why did Constantinople get the works?/That’s nobody’s business but the Turks’!” (“Istanbul,” by the Four Lads, 1953)
This is my last chance to remind my fellow Canadians in advance that voting for the Aurora Awards begins on June 20th and ends on July 25th. You have to be a Canadian citizen or resident to vote for the Auroras. And if you join the CSFFA (Canadian SF and Fantasy Association) today, you can download all the nominated works in time to read them all before voting begins (or you can do it any time during the voting period). But once we hit July 26, you won’t be able to join and vote (or vote if you’ve already joined). Membership is only $10, which is a heck of a deal for reading all these terrific works! (And I feel duty-bound to tell you that fellow Amazing Stories® Online columnist R. Graeme Cameron and I are competing for the same Aurora Award, “Best Fan Writing and Publications.” And my wife, the Beautiful & Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, is also a nominee in the “Best Artist” category, too. I urge you to vote, even if you don’t see fit to vote for me. [But I hope you will vote for both Fahnestalks.])
If you have any comments on this I’d love to hear them. Write me here, or on Facebook, or even email me(stevefah at hotmail dot com). Tell me what you think! (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 time!