Since it’s almost time for the March-April issue, I figured it would be about time to review the Jan-Feb issue of F&SF. The current issue is usually featured on SFSite, but they appear to be stuck with the November-December issue (with a nice cover by David A. Hardy). I usually depend on SFSite for cover artist information, so right now I don’t have that information. I also have no information—I’m sent the fiction and poems only, not the complete contents of the issues—on the non-fiction, but I’m sure it has the usual content: book reviews by Charles de Lint and others; possibly a film column by David J. Skal; cartoons, coming attractions, and the like. (In case you’re wondering, we have subscribed to the print issue, but delivery to Canada is kind of “iffy” during the time of Covid-19. If they’d only put Moist Von Lipwig in charge, how much better things would be!) This is also the last issue edited by C.C. Finlay.
There is a total of twelve stories and poems in this issue, ranging from sizeable to small (naturally). I’ll be reviewing these in a totally random order as usual. Let’s start with one of the bigger stories; this is a “Jonah and the Whale” tale from James Morrow. Except this is more like a “Jonah and the Philosopher” story. Rebekah Margolis (along with her genius son Avram) is an atheist. Accompanied by her lapsed-Catholic boyfriend, Michael, and her son, Rebekah is on her way from New York to the Process Theology Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, via ship (the freighter Hampton Amberjack) for several reasons. She is going to deliver a lecture, not on why or whether God doesn’t exist, but on how God doesn’t exist. That is, that he doesn’t exist in a different way from how unicorns, Santa Claus, and leprechauns don’t exist. Rebekah has had a book accepted by Oxford University Press, entitled The Ontology of Nonexistence, and she wants to announce that at her lecture. Avram has even built a working “nonexistence” or “void” detector to accompany the lecture.
Well, they probably should have flown or driven rather than taking a ship, because on the way Rebekah and Avram were swallowed by a very large fish (though not a whale) and discovered that the fish enclosed the afterlives of a number of philosophers nobody’s ever heard of: people like Titus Lucretius Carus, first century bc, prophet of Epicurus; Lucretius’s neighbor was also a poet, William Blake, eighteenth century, prophet of eternity; also Baruch Spinoza, Dutch philosopher. What? You’ve heard of these people? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out why you have! A fun story (almost as much fun as Monty Python’s “Philosophers Song”).
Next up: “Annabel Digs Her Own Grave,” a poem by Gretchen Tessmer, in somewhat the same nautical theme as the above—but not really. Annabel seems to have (again, in Monty Python terms) “snuffed it” while aboard a ship. But she doesn’t want to be taken back to shore and interred in a dirty, spider-infested coffin; that sort of thing is not for Annabel, no sir! She’d rather be dead in the ocean, where all kinds of clean fun can be had by a dead girl! An amusing little ditty.
The remarkably prolific Robert Reed is up next, with “Integral Nothings.” (Is there a “nothingness” thread going on here?) It’s possibly a cautionary tale, focusing on something called “The Blessings,” and typefied by various human beings: The most powerful human in the world”; “the smartest person in the world”; “the best-known person in the world”; and so on. The Blessings appear to be fairly quickly correcting problems in the world, to the benefit of humans… no more nuclear bombs; no more pollution; and so on. But are these mixed Blessings? A frightening look at a possible future.
Van Aaron Hughes’ “Hard!” is a short story about a particularly Canadian sport, curling. Although it is actually an Olympic sport, Hughes rather disses it, saying that “only a few Canadians and Swiss” play it between Olympic games. In case you’re not familiar with curling, I could liken it to shuffleboard on ice. I believe most Canadians are familiar with it; I know the rudiments myself, as it’s often on TV. The story also uses curling to talk about marriage, divorce, and expectations. It’s kind of a minor story, but quite readable.
“The Dark Ride,” by John Kessel, is the longest story in the issue; it’s set 120 years ago at the time of President McKinley’s assassination by Leon Czolgosz at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY (1901). Leon is the protagonist of this story, but it’s not a straightforward tale of a President’s killing. Leon approached McKinley several times at the Expo, but before the final, fateful meeting on September 6, 1901, he went on a fictional “Trip to the Moon” at the Expo—an exhibit influenced heavily by H.G. Wells’ First Men In the Moon. That experience also influenced the thoughts and actions of the assassin. Unlike the historical story, this one is open-ended, and it deals with Leon’s past and present, and the state of 19th- & 20th-century society in the U.S. I like the way Kessel brought 1901, the Exposition, and Leon Czolgosz to life.
Karen Joy Fowler, in “The Piper,” uses a number of fantasy tropes: a small village in an unnamed country with a king and queen; the raising of an army of villagers to fight in another country, and so on. (Many fantasy tropes involve what I like to call “generic fantasy,” somewhat medieval, with no thought for infrastructure… who coins the money? Where do their steel implements come from? Who makes the soldiers’ arms and armour? And so on….) There’s also a sly side issue sneaked into this story, though it really goes nowhere (the protagonist and Henry). Somehow these tropes don’t add up to what you think they will. An interesting experiment in fantasy, I think.
“Interludes with the Gunwright,” by Jonathan L. Howard, is a different kind of generic fantasy, where at least an infrastructure is hinted at. While still sharing a semi-medieval milieu, there are a lot of things that don’t belong in a generic fantasy: such things as rifles (rifling was invented in this world in the fifteenth century); knowledge of microbes; knowledge of lead and mercury poisoning; and fine clockworks. But the real story doesn’t involve the fantasy, it’s a story of two people meeting and, years later, falling in love. Kind of an odd mixture, but I liked it nonetheless.
“A Little Knife Music” is by Jenn Reese. Continuing with the idea of generic fantasy, we will ignore the lack of infrastructure and get behind the new idea of a Goddess giving everyone a special talent when they are born. This Goddess is a goddess of music, and in the case of the protagonist, called “Thrush” (although that was not her birth name), the music in her expresses itself through killing. Her father takes her to a special school where she meets a boy called “Sparrow” (all the children in this school are renamed after birds), and learns more about the art of killing. Thrush’s music is expressed through knife work. In this school—which hires out its most talented students for special jobs—she meets a girl, the King’s daughter (a byblow, or “woods colt,” meaning an illegitimate child). It doesn’t all play out the way you might think. An interesting idea.
Justin C. Key’s “N-raptured” is, AFAIK (As Far As I Know), sui generis. Like the Pushme-Pullyou, “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.” The Rapture happens, but it’s nothing like all the religious folk who predicted it could have imagined. Instead of transporting all the good people up to heaven, it changed a bunch of racists into rats. And only white/Caucasian (however you define that) people. Any white person who used the “N-word” fewer than seven times gets marked with a slash (a “tally”) on the forehead; seven or over is rat time. Did God do it? Aliens? Who knows? But it is still happening. Even if you’re just singing or quoting a rap song. This is a weird story, for sure. See what you think.
“Litter Witch,” by Susan Palwick, also fits the sui generis label. Rather than being set in some pseudo-medieval milieu, it’s set in reasonably modern times. The young female protagonist is scorned and bullied by her classmates—and beat up, rather than just verbally bullied—all the way up to high school, where she’s mostly ignored. Her family life is no better, and she begins, when she is fairly young, collecting sticks and stones stained with her own blood. Eventually she leaves her uncaring family and goes, with her collection, to the nearby woods, where she sets about using her collection of bloodstained sticks and stones (the titular “litter”) to begin making her own home. The story develops naturally from there up to where it takes a startling turn… and then just kind of fades out. I’m not sure about the ending; I had a conversation just tonight about open-ended stories with my wife, the Beautiful and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk. It depends on how affective the story is, I think. (That’s “affective,” as in it affects you intellectually or emotionally.) But the writing, whether the ending works or not, is terrific.
Lavie Tidhar’s “Wild Geese” will surprise you. Pure SF, it’s a far-future time when people have colonized the sea, the moon, and Mars, and sent slow ships out towards other galaxies. The only personal pronouns in use are variants of “they” and “them,” and it seems that most everyone has body mods or nodes or sockets, including Efrem, the protagonist. They live in and around Ulaanbaatar and have a friend called Avi. Both are hobos, hunting the wild geese, which are like no geese you’ve ever heard of. There’s a lot of future hidden in the corners of this story, and I’ll bet you enjoy it as much as I did.
“The Diamond Family Glitters,” by H. Pueyo, a South American writer living in Brazil, arose out of some old family pictures, she claims, from 1900. She began writing stories about them. The protagonist, Jacinto Diamante (Diamond, in English), tells that the whole Diamond family has a brilliance—what Dick Halloran in The Shining called “The Shine”—Jacinto can astrally project, his twin nieces are telepathic, his sister is telekinetic, and so on. He has to return to the family estância when he finds out in a dream that his grandmother, his vovô, is dying. The family knows that their brilliance came from their vovô, and they are afraid that their special gifts will disappear when she dies. Jacinto does some astral traveling to the past, to discover where the brilliance came from; what he finds astonishes him, though his vovô knew it all the time. A cute little story enlivened by the South American touches. I, personally, love stories that teach me something I didn’t previously know. All in all, a very good issue to end on; I think Charles C. Finlay can be proud of his tenure at F&SF.
You may have noticed it’s been a while since my first column of the year; I have to tell you that I will be posting these a lot more sporadically in 2021. Part of it is other commitments; part of it is that I have to give myself more time to write fiction; it takes an effort to switch from non-fiction to fiction. I hope that it doesn’t disappoint my readers (but OTOH—On The Other Hand—I hope somebody’s looking forward to my columns enough to actually be disappointed! [laugh emoji]). I also have a lot of reading and movie watching to do this year; I’m finally getting around to reading Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, and there’s a Korean film, Space Sweepers, getting a lot of buzz from my friends. What are you all reading or watching—or looking forward to? Let me know, please.
I really look forward to comments on these columns, whether posted here, or on Facebook, or via email (stevefah at hotmail dot com). Your comments, good or bad, positive or negative, are welcome! (Just try to be 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!