REVIEW: F&SF July-August 2020 (Part II)

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Figure 1 – July-Aug 2020 cover by Alan M. Clark

Last week I gave you part I of this month’s F&SF review; this week I’ll finish the review. I probably could have done more last week, but it was over 1600 words and I don’t want you “TLDR”-ing my review. (Too Long, Didn’t Read. Don’t you love “netspeak”?)

Let’s start with M. Rickert’s “Last Night at the Fair.” The editor’s notes say this evokes a “Bradburian sense of wonder,” and I can’t disagree. It’s told by Anne Marie in first-person, about when she was young and the Fair came to town; it only stayed four days, but those were days of eating hot dogs and funnel cakes, riding the rides, eating popcorn and cotton candy. It was all made more magicl by her dad telling her the Big Dipper was right above her house, pouring magic all over it. But nothing lasts forever, not dads, not fairs, and what do you do after the fair closes down? When you’re a kid in a Bradbury-type tale, you go to the Fair after the Fair. Read it and weep… for nostalgia, and happiness.

”The Monsters of Olympus Mons” by Brian Trent comes next. It takes place on a far-future Mars at a time when it’s been colonized for years by humans. Indeed, there’s a shallow Amazonis Planitia Sea, the largest of seveal polar meltwaters, and human cities align the various canals of the seas’ deltas. Olympus Mons, the tallest peak in the Solar System, has long since been conquered by a man named Jonathan Parrillo, who planted the flag of the Partisan group, largest of the factions arguing for control of the Martian colonists. Mars has been inhabited long enough to have its own legends and ghosts, like Penthi, the Canal Monster, Yuba Ama, the female ghost who comes for the dead and dying, and Thoat, the giant rock lizard.
And there’s the rub; what do you do when the ruling party becomes oppressive? How do you turn to monsters who don’t exist for help? A Martian story that partakes neither of Andy Weir nor E.R. Burroughs, yet is as real as both of them.

Madeleine Robins’ story “’Omunculus” is an alternate-world steampunk (i.e., Georgian) version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (My Fair Lady was the musical adaptation by Lerner and Loew). In this story, Professor Henry Higgins tries to interest the public in his Higgins Enunciatory Exhalometer, a device he has invented to help people enunciate properly. To that end, he has come to the Royal Exhibition Hall of Manufactury and Scientific Achievements but, alas! has been shuffled off to one of the lesser wings where few people actually visit. Deciding to leave, he passes through another hall, where a Mr. Rossum, from Eastern Europe, is demonstrating his artificial worker machines. Higgins is stricken with the idea of having Rossum create a machine that could actually speak and work; he immediately commissions one. When it is finished, it has the appearance of a female, so Rossum calls it after his Aunt Eliza. (You see where this is going, right?)
Sans Colonel Pickering and Alfred P. Doolittle, this story proceeds a lot like My Fair Lady; informed more by a feminist viewpoint than by Lerner and Loew’s more familiar one. Freddy Eynsford-Hill (sadly, without the hyphen) comes into the story, but I think you will find this one ends a bit more satisfactorily than the musical. (Unless you’re in sympathy with Henry Higgins.) I played Higgins onstage in Lewiston, Idaho, and although I can sympathize somewhat with his view, this is better and more realistic to the characters.

“Madre Nuestra, Que Estás en Maracaibo,” by Ana Hurtado, is a story about Yesenia, who lives in Maracaibo, Venezuela. (The title translates to “Our Mother, who is in Maracaibo.”) Yesenia has a husband and two children, but because of her husband’s affairs, she has moved back to her childhood home, where her grandmother (“abuela”) lies dying. (Her children refuse to visit in case her zombie abuela will eat their brains.) Abuela has always prayed to the Virgin to ease the suffering of the souls of the dead in purgatory, and those who were dying unshrived because of suicide… now, who will pray for her?
Yesenia falls back into a routine from childhood, though she has graduated from law school and could go find a job as a lawyer (her mama constantly chides her: “A lawyer who does not practice is not a lawyer”). Meanwhile, her abuela is in pain. Eventually things all come to a head, though you’ll have to read the story; I don’t want to say too much. It ends with the line “On Earth, as it is in Heaven.” Well written!
Mel Kassel’s “Crawfather” is, I think, sui generis. The Lawrence family lives near Bluegill Lake, which is horseshoe shaped. At one of the arms lives the Crawfather, which is a crawdad (Crayfish, to you Northerners) the size of an 18-wheeler. It’s a family tradition with the Lawrences, since 1800, that as a Lawrence hits his or her teens, they have to go fight the Crawfather at the annual reunion. Most years, they don’t lose anyone, though.
This year it’s Nancy’s turn. “Why can’t we just rent out the cabins and hold our reunion somewhere else?” she asks, but she’s told that to do so would expose some other family to possible death, plus it would disrespect the Lawrences who have already died. Nancy doesn’t get it. I wonder if you will?

Now we come to “A Bridge from Sea to Sky,” by Bennett North. Pure SF, and set in a future that was smart enough to build an elevator to orbit, but stupid enough to want to defund it, this is not a story for those who can visualize and who have a fear of heights. Aoife is one of the few remaining maintenance workers left on the elevator (the others having been let go as funding has been cut). She works with Shoniqua and Chanda. Aoife and Chanda’s job is to shuttle down the cable when the automatics detect any kind of strike on the cable, and repair it.
If the cable is ever cut entirely, Clarke Station will probably whirl into the Sun, and the whole remaining cable, probably more than 25,000 km of it, will fall back to Artsunov Base in the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, while Aoife and Chanda are doing a routine patch, the cable is hit by a satellite that was itself hit by a meteorite, severing all but one strand of the multi-stranded cable. Each strand is, by itself, capable of holding the elevator together, but the associated wires, non-load-bearing, that carry the electricity, phones, and so on, are gone. Without those—especially electricity—Clarke Station and the maintenance bay are in big trouble. A tense and scary story!

Finally, we have “Spirit Level,” by John Kessel. Michael is a man in his forties, who lives in the house his father built. His father began the house when he learned his wife was pregnant; it and Michael are the same age. His father has been dead for a while; his mother is in a home and no longer knows who he is—or, indeed, who she is. Michael doesn’t visit very often. He’s a contractor for a software company, writing documentation for a project that changes frequently; his boss—who isn’t a writer—is frequently critical of him. He moved out of his own house and left his wife and son some time ago. There’s no love lost between him and his wife or him and his son, who blames him for the breakup.
He’s dating Donna, who works in a different area of the company—but quietly, since the big boss frowns on dating within the company. One night he receives a visit from the ghost of his wife, who isn’t actually dead. Another night he finds his father’s old spirit level—it’s a long block of wood with several glass bubbles that’s used for leveling things by carpenters. He then sees his father who, surprisingly solid for a ghost, pokes him with the spirit level. Bit by bit we learn about Michael’s character, and watch as his world slowly falls apart. The story’s very depressing, in my opinion, but some of it resonates. I suspect something in it will resonate with others as well.

I received an email from Darrell, who lives in Viet Nam, the other day. He said, “Another great, interesting review.  Made me want to run out to get a copy but … oh, wait! … I can’t here!” Thanks, Darrell! What? No newsstand sales in Viet Nam? Yeah, I’m guessing there are few if any F&SF newsstand copies available anywhere but in North America. However, I did check it out—actually, for my own subscription—and you can get a year’s subscription for only $55.97 (USD) anywhere outside the U.S. I couldn’t find any information on an e-sub. Hope that helps, mi amigo!

You too can comment on my column! You can comment here, or on Facebook, or even by email, like Darrell—just use stevefah at hotmail dot com. All your comments 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 time!

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