I hope everyone had a satisfying Thanksgiving on Thursday—whether you were celebrating or mourning. (That, of course, applies to Americans only; this was their holiday.)
This is the final issue for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF) for 2020 and, of course, my final review of this fine magazine for 2020. 2021 will bring major changes to F&SF, of which I’ll speak anon. The cover of this issue is by David A. Hardy, who can boast a long and fruitful relationship with the magazine; he’s a stellar (no pun intended) illustrator who’s been in the field for a very long time. This cover illustrates “Skipping Stones in the Dark,” by Amman Sabet.
Figure 2 is all about those major changes I was talking about: it’s Sheree Renée Thomas, who will be taking over as editor from C.C. Finlay with the March-April (second issue of 2021) issue. She will be the first female editor since Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who edited the magazine from about 1991-1997, and she’ll be the first person of colour to edit. I believe that Finlay wants to get back to writing; there’s no criticism of his editing implied. This is Thomas’s bio sketch from the magazine itself:
Sheree Renée Thomas is the award-winning writer and editor of Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) and Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (2004), which earned the 2001 and 2005 World Fantasy Awards for Year’s Best Anthology. She has also edited for Random House and for magazines like Apex, Obsidian, and Strange Horizons. She is a member of SFWA, HWA, SFPA, and Cave Canem. Thomas is an author and poet with three collections, Nine Bar Blues: Stories from an Ancient Future (Third Man Books, 2020), Sleeping Under the Tree of Life (Aqueduct Press, 2016) and Shotgun Lullabies: Stories & Poems (Aqueduct Press, 2011). Widely anthologized, her work also appears in The Big Book of Modern Fantasy and The New York Times. She was honored as a 2020 World Fantasy Award Finalist for her contributions to the genre. Thomas will be the tenth editor in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction‘s storied history. Her first appearance on the masthead will be in the March/April 2021 issue.
As Kris Rusch brought an entirely new perspective to a magazine that had always been edited by men, so will Sheree, I hope, bring another perspective that will enlarge and enlighten our F&SF experience. I look forward to her tenure as editor with great anticipation!
The fictional and non-fictional contents of the current issue are as follows:
“The Bahrain Underground Bazaar” – Nadia Afifi
“La Regina Ratto” – Nick DiChario
“How to Burn Down the Hinterlands” – Lyndsie Manusos
“The Glooms” – Matthew Hughes
“A Tale of Two Witches- Albert E. Cowdrey
“A Civilized and Orderly Zombie Apocalypse Per School Regulations” – Sarina Dorie
“The Homestake Project” – Cylin Busby
“On Vapor, Which the Night Condenses” – Gregor Hartmann
“The Silent Partner” – Theodore McCombs
“Skipping Stones in the Dark” – Amman Sabet
“Least Weird Thing of All” – Beth Cato
“Mended” – Mary Soon Lee
“Space Isn’t Like in the Vids” – Beth Cato
And, of course, there will be the usual gang of smart people doing the usual non-fiction (don’t forget you can read the non-fiction online):
” Books to Look For” — Charles de Lint
”Musing on Books” – Michelle West
”Films: Three Degrees of Shirley Jackson” – David J. Skal
”Science: Is Math Real? ” – Jerry Oltion
Index to Volumes 138 & 139
”Curiosities” – Paul Di Filippo
And cartoons by Mark Heath, Kendra Allenby, and Bill Long
So let’s just jump right in; I want to start with one of my favourite F&SF authors, Matthew Hughes, with another “Baldemar” tale. Matt’s Baldemar tales take place in the same world as his novel A God In Chains and the rest of the “Raffalon” stories, as far as I know. Baldemar was a “henchman” to a wizard, a thaumaturge of the Red School, named Thelerion. But this tale takes place after Thelerion has managed to become the late Thelerion, and Baldemar has retired. However, a couple of Thelerion’s rival wizards want to get back a few items that were taken from them, and they think Baldemar has them. The story involves Baldemar’s (and his friend Oldo’s) attempts to avoid being involved in more wizardry. Where wizards are concerned, nothing ever turns out the way you expect it to. Well written and fun!
“Least Weird Thing of All” is one of two Beth Cato poems in this issue. Short but sweet, it involves a seven-year-old girl and some changes. And no expectations. Shows how much can be accomplished by just a few words.
Amman Sabet’s “Skipping Stones in the Dark,” this issue’s cover story, resembles Martha Wells’ “murderbot” stories in one respect; the subject is an AI. The difference here is that the AI is a generation ship sent to colonize a near star. Rather than an adjunct to humanity forced to deal with humanity as in Wells’ stories, the AI here is named The Fold and encloses all the humanity it deals with. It is mother and father, teacher and nurturer to all the humans within it. When some humans want to be individuals, The Fold is forced to deal with them, but it’s not quite as smart as it thinks. A scary tale.
“A Tale of Two Witches,” by Albert E. Cowdrey, is a story about Rosie Merckel, a “sensitive” woman in Maryland. But it’s also a story about the Crownes and their children, about lost children and ghosts. A sad story, but with a bit of an uplifting ending. Well done!
Nick DiChario’s “La Regina Ratto” is one of the two longest stories in the issue. It’s a modern fable about Giuseppe, a man moving into the Village of Shadows (il Villagio delle Ombre) in a small island off Sicily. He’s moved there from Naples for an unspecified job with a big company, and he hopes to advance his career by moving there. But unknown to him, he has a rat problem, which at first, seems easily solved, until he meets the Queen of the Rats (La Regina Ratto). Then his life takes an unexpected turn. For some reason I kept visualizing the rats in Ratatouille while reading this. A fun story!
“On Vapor, Which the Night Condenses” is by Gregor Hartmann. It’s a futuristic murder mystery set on another planet, Zephyr. Philippa Song is an investigator, trying to find out who would kill an anonymous scent-maker; perhaps the trap was set for the owner of the lab, an eyeless woman named Omega (Ω)? Zephyr is an offshoot colony of Tensen; it’s a “maker”-based society (think comprehensive 3D printing a la William Gibson’s The Peripheral) with different strata of society. An interesting take on a possible future. (Not our future, probably. But who knows?)
Mary Soon Lee’s poem “Mended” is about 92 veterans from the Battle of Algol who were healed of their wounds and returned… but subtly changed. Why would the aliens do this? Well, they are, by definition, alien. No conclusions are reached, but then again, are they needed?
“The Bahrain Underground Bazaar,” by Nadia Afifi instantly evokes a place and a culture that many of us will never be able to afford to see firsthand (Afifi grew up in Bahrain), an Eastern souk, or bazaar. This, however, is Bahrain’s souk of the future, in a time when (mostly the young) have a NeuroLync implanted, so they can do almost anything remotely with a thought, or record their daily lives. Trading in experiences is common. Zahra, our elderly protagonist, is dying from cancer; her chemo is painful and she knows the end is near. She wants to choose her own end; she chooses to go to Bahrain’s Underground Bazaar to experience others’ suicides in preparation for her own, though her family doesn’t know it and would prevent it—from love and concern—if they did. She finds one particular recording, a woman who died at Petra, that resonates with her, and determines to copy her fate. What happens when Zahra travels to Petra is surprising and somewhat gratifying. (If you don’t know Petra, it’s the place carved into the rock where Indiana Jones finds the “Holy Grail.”) A nice story with some interesting suppositions in it.
Theodore McCombs’ “The Silent Partner” is present-day fiction that echoes back to the Second World War, when Japanese-Americans (and Japanese-Canadians) were torn from their homes, jobs, and possessions and sent to live in internment camps. Many people took ownership of these homes, lands, and possessions, so that the citizens of Japanese descent (Issei, Nisei and Sansei) returned to find themselves homeless, landless, jobless. Mr. Roberts is a dealer in antique furniture who has come to Jean Fowler’s house to buy some things her late husband “acquired” during that period. He’s particularly interested in a Nakashima table, made by an internee; its sale will help keep his nearly-insolvent business afloat. But he doesn’t realize he might be buying more than just a table. Actions, even national ones, have consequences. It’s a scary story!
“Space Isn’t Like in the Vids” is the second of Beth Cato’s poems in this issue and, like some stories in this magazine, talks of the differences between expectations and reality. And shows that, even in space, don’t believe everything you’re told. Space is really kind of grim.
Cylin Busby’s “The Homestake Project” is about a researcher looking in a deep mine—the Homestake Mine—in the Black Hills of South Dakota, for a worm, a nematode. She’s come from Princeton to find Halicephalobus mephisto, a tiny thing that’s able to survive in groundwater at two miles below the surface. She was supposed to go to South Africa with her lover/mentor, Ryan, to visit the diamond mines there, but she’s been supplanted by another, younger grad student. Whomever finds the Devil Worm can show that life might survive on Mars. It was her idea, but Ryan stole it. And now she’s been replaced. Just between you and me, he’s made a big mistake! Well written; I could almost feel the heat and pressure of two miles of earth above me.
And now we come to the other long story in this issue, “How to Burn Down the Hinterlands,” by Lyndsie Manusos. Faro lives in The Hinterlands, east of the town of New Arboretum. It’s mostly farmland—to the east is the Unnamed Ocean. Faro is a blacksmith and bladesmith, like her late mother Ore. Ore created a sword of power after her lover, a scribe, was conscripted and killed in one of the local wars—and after he was gone, discovered she was pregnant. This sword, like Philip Pullman’s “subtle knife,” could cut anything; Ore imbued her rage and other destructive emotions into the sword. Creating a sword of power was strictly forbidden, and Ore was dragged away and burned, but before these things happened, Faro was born and spent her formative years in the forge, accumulating strength and forge knowledge. But now the king has sent his Hand and the Hand’s four companions—the Shield, the Scimitar, the Sai, and the Arrow—to tell Faro she must make a sword of power for the king. It cannot be as powerful as the one her mother had made, but it must be extremely powerful. This is the king’s command. Not to give too much away, but really—does he think she has forgotten her mother’s immolation in fire? A well-written fantasy and a paean to skill and revenge.
“A Civilized and Orderly Zombie Apocalypse Per School Regulations” by Sarina Dorie is a surprise. I wouldn’t have thought there was anything new to be written in the zombie apocalypse genre, but Ms. Dorie has done it. As a schoolteacher herself—one who’s worked at a school that has had a shooting—she knows safety procedures by heart. So if you haven’t heard of A.L.I.C.E., now’s your chance to get educated. Very cleverly written.
Comments on my column are welcome. You can comment here, or on Facebook, or even by email (stevefah at hotmail dot com). All your comments, good or bad, 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!