BETTER LATE… NOV./DEC. F&SF (2021) REVIEW

It’s post-New Year’s, and for the first column and review of 2022, Steve would like to bring you his final review for 2021 of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (He liked it!)

Figure 1 – Nov.-Dec. 2021 F&SF Cover by Maurtzio Manzieri

This should have appeared in December, but… you know how things can get away from one. But we’re here together, you and me; and the snow here seems to have ceased for now, washed away by several days of rain, and we can believe that spring will come as it always has.

One of my favourite winter poems has always been this one of The Bard’s:
When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail
When blood is nipped, and ways be foul
Then nightly sings the staring owl
To-whoo; To-whit, to-whoo, a merry note
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

How evocative and descriptive is that? Of course, we have neither great hall nor fireplace, and the winter’s been fairly mild in Vancouver—before Christmas, then snowy up to the New Year, with cold, wet, snowy and mild in more or less equal portions so far in January.

I hope your Christmas (and New Year’s) were memorable. For most people, this season—whether you are religious or not—is a time of celebration, of reflection; of peace and of thanks for all the gifts that life has given us. The watchword for this time, for me, has always been “Joy!”

And our Nov./Dec. F&SF arrived just before Christmas (at 8:30 in the morning—first time in a dozen years I can recall the mail coming that early!); 258 pages of SF & Fantasy goodness! I’d say thanks are due to Gordon Van Gelder, publisher; Sheree Renée Thomas, editor; all the publication and editorial staff, and the columnists who banded together (all in their separate places) to bring us this bounty. Huzzah! Cheers! Skål!

This issue brings to a close the magazine’s 73rd year of publication (and my 74th year of existence!); It’s been memorable for both of us—we became friends about when I was ten or eleven (i.e., I found and started reading F&SF), and we’ve been friends, mostly—there have been a few years where my F&SF reading was sporadic—ever since. This thick issue contains no fewer than four novelets, six short stories, and four poems, and columns by the aforementioned columnists. And so to begin my 9th year writing a more-or-less weekly (okay, I only did 28 columns in 2021, which is a bit over every other week) column for Amazing Stories® Online, let’s jump in.

The issue begins with a short editorial talking about light as a metaphor as well as something to combat the darkness. Which makes me wonder: when will someone invent the “flashdark?” I think that could be useful. But let’s continue with the magazine.

The first story is “Broad Dutty Water: A Sunken Story,” by Nalo Hopkinson. Written in a semi-Jamaican patois, it tells the tale of Jacquee and her pig Lickchop, who has an implanted vocoder (wireless, apparently) implanted in his head. Jacquee has borrowed “Uncle” Silvis’s ultralight to go from the “taz” she lives in—a kind of floating, 3D-printed raft—to go visit the landlock, where she had wetware implanted to match her brain implants. The sea’s been busy reclaiming the land, and only higher landlock is left; the Gulf Coast, Amazon Basin, Pacific Islands, Eastern Seaboard and so much else is now underwater. Only the various taz and the highest landlock is left. Against this backdrop of apocalyptic disaster, Hopkinson tells a simple tale of human survival, of new life discovery, of family—including the pig! So well done.

Megan Lindholm, who is also Robin Hobb, writes a light/dark little fantasy with “A Dime.” Peggy has been coming to the same convenience store parking lot for many years to use the pay phone. At first, when she was young, she couldn’t afford a home phone—she was in college—but as she grew, it became a tradition to at least phone home around Christmas. Every year, as payphones disappear around the world, this one seems to survive—a bit dirtier, often with cracked glass and missing handset, but she worked at Radio Shack once and learned to bring a linesman’s handset. She never seems to make it home at Christmas, but always assures her mother she’ll be there around Easter. This year might be a bit different. Bittersweet.

“What Makes You Forget,” by new-to-F&SF Greek writer Victor Pseftakis is another fantasy, set in a disintegrating part of (I assume) Greece. The only employer is The Mine, and Marta works there, where they mine the ore that makes Purple Prose, which is some kind of narcotic. On her way to work is the makeshift dump where everyone puts anything they find useless or broken. In the dump is The Hole, which grants wishes—but not for free. The bigger the wish, the more of yourself you have to give The Hole. At first you can just spit in it, but for a big wish—Marta wants to make music with her violin, not work in the mine—something else, something more. Some people are thought to have climbed into The Hole when their desires were too big. What will happen to Marta when she wants her son Miro to play the violin and escape the mine for good? What will she have to give, and will she do so willingly? Well written indeed.

From Greece, we head down under to Australia, where T.R. Napper’s first F&SF story, “A Vast Silence,” is about Jackson (Jack) Nguyen, who may be the only person in Australia to have disconnected from the Freewave, which records their memories from age 12 to death via cochlearglyph implant. He’s a homeless man who’s hacked into Melbourne University’s network to masquerade as a student to get a ride with Sally Redacre. As she recharges her Tesla Ganymede at the edge of the Nullarbor Plain (boasting the longest straight section of tarred road in Australia at 146 km.), Jack hears a ghostly voice in his head telling him they have to leave. But it’s too late; the cops catch up to them and remotely disable the Tesla. Jack’s being pursued because a Chinese woman has given him an AI that is currently sharing his neural network—only Jack doesn’t know that—and the authorities will do literally anything to get their hands on it, including killing all witnesses: Jack, Sally, Jack’s late friend Col, and an Indigenous cop. Can the world’s most powerful AI (developed in China) save itself, Jack and Sally? Can Jack learn anything from all this?

That story is followed by Charles de Lint’s and James Sallis’s book review columns; if you only read the fiction in this magazine, you’re missing some excellent writing. I use these writers’ columns to help me understand what I should be looking for (and might be missing) in other writers’ work. And often, to find books worth reading.

Alexander Glass’s “The Reckoning” reunites two of Western history’s well-known writers (I don’t think it’s supposed to be a surprise; I figured out who they were within minutes) with a twist. Only one of them is currently alive; the other owes his current existence to technology. A choice is offered; will it be yea or nay? Well done and, I’d say, believable.

Graham Edwards brings us back to the fantasy side with “Castellia,” a tale of intelligent and moving castles. Okay, maybe not as believable as the previous story, but I guess that would depend on your measuring stick. Isobel is a chanter, and has brought Byre the castle awake from a long and deep sleep so that it may take her someplace she wishes to go. During the trip, Byre learns much about her and itself. A different kind of story, and charming, in a way.

Eleanor Arnason takes us to Iceland with “Laki,” a tale of a volcanic eruption and the effects those can have on Icelandic peoples—including a few quite surprising types. In Iceland, trolls aren’t little plastic dolls with orange hair; they’re large, hairy types with big appetites. And during an eruption, when everything’s being covered with ash and/or lava, there are other hungers abroad in the land. Arnason, who is of Icelandic descent, combines an historical eruption with fok tales and gives us a very interesting story.

“Mad Milk,” by Natalia Theodoridou, takes us to a conflict between two ancient cultures, Epyrotea and Minorea. Semandra is commander of King Pyrson’s armies; her personal assistant and sometime lover is Phyllidia. The truce between the two countries was broken by Minorea, when the Minoreans slaughtered an entire Epyrotean village down to the children, and killed Semandra’s love, Nasson. Semandra is leading an invading army whose soldiers are made nearly invincible berserkers by consuming the eponymous Mad Milk; she intends to conquer Minorea and kill or capture their general, Dalianus, while nearly razing the Minorean capital city. But revenge is a double-edged sword, and Semandra has a hard lesson to learn. (This is an “adult” tale with somewhat explicit situations in it, just FYI.)

David J. Skal’s film column examines Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, as well as Chaos Walking, based on the YA series by Patrick Ness. He examines the good and bad of both films.

In the “Science” column, Jerry Oltion tells us how telescopes actually work, as opposed to how they work in SF film and literature. Unfortunately for film and literature, our authors and filmmakers have taken certain liberties—in some cases, giant liberties—with the properties of telescopes, both optical and otherwise. But Oltion straightens us out. And I learned that light amplification (the so-called “Night Vision”) is based on proprietary technology that is illegal for non-US citizens to even look through!

The science column is followed by the results of F&SF Competition #102 (“Jeopardy”) and the unveiling of Competition #103. (All entries must be in by Jan. 15—but there’s email, so still time to enter!)

K.A. Teryna from Moscow, Russia, gives us “Lajos and His Bees,” translated by Alex Shvartsman. Set in “Vanaheimr,” it’s very much a new folk tale (I think) about Lajos, who even as a boy was not one to participate in village life; who spent most of his life in the forest, which appeared to take him in as one of its own; his best friends were the bees. He only came to town for his mother’s pastry and to trade weird carvings and honey for things he couldn’t get in or from the forest. When his parents died, he came to town even less frequently. But when he fell in love, all bets were off. Not all fairy/folk tales are happy ones, you know.

“The Black Dog Gone Gray,” by Hayley Stone, gives us a new view of an old fantasy trope, and a sympathetic story about characters who are often viewed unsympathetically. I enjoyed it.

Jennie Goloboy does somewhat the same thing—rehabilitates a character who’s often written about unsympathetically, in “A Demon’s Christmas Carol,” ending this issue on a very upbeat note.

By the way, January should be a lighter month as far as “things I have to do,” so I’ll be reviewing the Jan./Feb. issue much sooner than I did this one. (You can still get copies of this issue online and probably at bookstores if you act now.) And I’ll have reviews of some great new books by people like David R. Palmer, Ira Nayman, Kathe Koja and more!

Comments? Anyone? Bueller? You can comment here or on Facebook, or even by email (stevefah at hotmail dot com). All comments are welcome! (Just be polite, please.) 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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