Steve is unforgivably late with his review of the Jan/Feb 2020 F&SF. He hopes you’ll forgive him if he posts the next two issues’ reviews on time!

Figure 1 – F&SF Jan-Feb 2020 Cover

Oh, my gosh! I totally messed up and didn’t post this review in a timely fashion. I hope Gordon Van Gelder (publisher) and C.C. Finlay (editor) and all the wonderful people who contribute to this wonderful magazine can forgive me for this lapse. I have no excuse.

F&SF, otherwise known as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, has been publishing since 1949 (I, myself, have only been around since 1947!) and has not, to the best of my knowledge, had a bad issue in all that time. Yes, occasionally they may have published a less-than-stellar story, but let’s face it: even Jove nods. But through all editoral changes, from Boucher and McComas, to Mills, to the Fermans, Avram Davidson, Kris Rusch, Van Gelder and Finlay—whomever the editor, the story choices have been good, to great, to stellar! Cover artists, likewise—Freas, EMSH, Bonestell, Hunter, Gaughan, Walotsky, Hardy—as well as the reviewers and regular columnists, which have included De Lint, Bester, Merril, Knight… it would take a long time to list ‘em all.

And let’s not forget the science column, which has featured Asimov; and the current crop: Benford, Oltion, Murphy & Doherty. (And let’s not forget the humour: who, back in The Day, didn’t eagerly wait for the newest Feghoot by “Grendel Briarton” (actually Reginald Bretnor, though I didn’t know it at the time). F&SF also has had cartoons; my own wife, the Beautiful and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, had a couple published. And I haven’t even talked about the sheer breadth of story published in this magazine; the credits read like a virtual Who’s Who of science fiction and/or fantasy, and the magazine and its authors have won pretty much every award the field has to offer. (You can inspect the non-fiction contests of the current issue at SF Site. Click the name for the link.) None of this is meant to minimize the contributions of whomever I didn’t cite here.

But let’s look at the Jan/Feb stories (I’ll cover Mar/April in my next column), shall we? Here are the fiction contents:

        Chisel and Chime                        –      Alex Irvine

        Save, Salve, Shelter                    –      Essa Hansen
        Air of the Overworld                    –      Matthew Hughes
        Banshee                                    –      Michael Cassutt
        Falling Angel                               –      Albert E. Cowdrey
        Elsinore Revolution                     –      Elaine Vilar Madruga
        The Key to Composing Human Skin        –      Julianna Baggott
        Interlude in Arcadia                     –      Corey Flintoff
        Three Gowns for Clara                  –      Auston Habershaw
        The Nameless                            –      Melissa Marr
        The Leader Principle                   –      Rahul Kanakia

Let’s take them in no particular order, starting with “The Leader Principle” by Rahul Kanakia. According to the blurb, this is sort of like an upscale “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (Heinlein), but I’m not sure about that. Gobhind, the protagonist, works for Kevin Slack, a man who is obsessed with space and getting there; he’s apparently a multibillionaire who has created an organization that creates loyalists. Gobhind (called “Gobie” by the Slack family) is Kevin’s first line of defense; a private secretary cum facilitator, who serves as the Atmospheric (Kevin’s company) “booster.” The whole company (trying to start colonizing Mars) is basically a floater, with not a whole lot in actual assets, but starting with Gobie, it appears that all backers are willing to give literally everything they own to see it succeeds, by buying bonds that may never be redeemed. Eventually, the whole thing turns paramilitary, and succeeds in planting a Mars colony. It was very well written, but I’m afraid I didn’t buy it.

“Elsinore Revolution” by Elaine Vilar Madruga, Translated by Toshiya Kamei is next. It’s in the far future, where the Globe Theatre apparently owns numerous Shakespeare bots or androids, who obediently write the stories we all know, to be acted out by other bots or androids, over and over. I won’t tell you what happens when Ophelia B-349 refuses to die, as Ophelia has since Hamlet was written. You won’t need rosemary to remember this one, I’ll bet. Odd, but kinda good.

“Falling Angel,” by Albert E. Cowdrey, starts with a bit of prescience. These stories were probably bought months ago… but “Hey, you sick?” “Flu. Like everybody else this year.” This is a fun story; it’s a psychic/noirish/detective story set approximately in the present. Butch and Roma are Bay-area people in LA to “cleanse” a hotel. Back in the ‘forties and ‘fifties, it was called The Louella, and was the home to movie stars and the like, but it lost its reputation with the glitterati and slide down to hosting near-Skid-row would-be actors and the like. Then a failed actress named Jean Harwich took a dive off the roof, and her scream can still be heard echoing through that side of the hotel. Because the hotel’s being renovated into upscale condos (“1.2 [million] and up”), the developer has called in Roma, a genuine Slavic and “gypsy” medium, to help clear up the scream. (By the way, the use of that word is from the story.) How Jean died—it was murder, not suicide—and what Roma and Butch (mostly Roma) did are the crux of the story. And quite the dénoument, too! Well done! Enjoyable (and I don’t even believe in mediums!)

Essa Hansen’s “Save, Salve, Shelter,” is another post-Apocalyptic tale, but this one is a somewhat different apocalypse from most previously imagined. Humanity has ruined the planet, and strange fungal infections have attacked and killed most animals. The only sanctuary to be found will be on the planet Mars, and before abandoning Earth forever, the UN decided that it would be cheaper and quicker to scan DNA of all animal life; that will take up less room on the shuttles than shipping actual animals (and, I presume, plants). Humans (except for crew) can stay in cryosleep for the months it takes to get to Mars; there’s no time and no room for anything else. Pasha is one of hundreds or thousands of volunteers roaming the various wildernesses, from Africa to Ontario, sampling animal DNA for the databases. Only Pasha has a self-imposed mission: when she finds a baby animal, abandoned by parental death, she takes it into her care, sheltering it on her body. She did it in Africa, but the shuttle left without her and her wards; she’s trying to find a way to keep them with her when she finally leaves Earth. She has a guaranteed seat due to her volunteer work, but they won’t take her tiny charges. What can she do? What will she do? A strange and chilling tale.

“The Key to Composing Human Skin,” by Julianna Baggott, is about propaganda. The narrator, unnamed as far as I could tell, is the only son of Herzella Yarning, who works in a propaganda bureau. Sort of an advertising company for governments. They say that no matter how fervent your target base is, there’s always twenty percent that doesn’t get it, doesn’t believe your message, buy your product, or worship your messiah. Herzella’s boss, Whistle, wants her to come up with something that will convince everyone, even the twenty percent; what she comes up with is not tattoing; it’s a rash that will bring messages up on the skin willy-nilly. (Her son, the narrator, is suffering from a rash, which is why she thinks of this.) Since this is in the future (they have AIs, called “Ollies,” though I don’t know why), Herzella goes to one of the company coders, named Schulm. And from there it gets a bit weird… governments should know there are always a few “partisans,” malcontents, people who don’t swallow the orangeade. You might guess what happens next. I liked it.

Michael Cassutt’s “Banshee” is pure SF; it takes place in a future where “Bansheeing” (from the Chinese “Bianching”—literally, “changing”) is common. Bansheeing is changing the human body form to something non-human, like bears, dogs, dinosaurs; even imaginary forms like Martians and unicorns. (Certain mass adjustments need to be made, of course.) Nik Salida is sixty-five years old and a veteran of the space program; he and his team, led by Togo Blaine, have been trying to make a space vehicle that needs no “staging”; instead of stages, the main vehicle’s engines and form would morph into a space-going rocket when out of atmosphere. At this point it’s called Skin Walker (because of the morphing), and it’s a failure. It’s been a failure for several years now, and instead of firing the project head as had been planned, Blaine, Nik finds himself moved, relegated to a minor position outside the project. To further complicate matters, his wife has been dissatisfied with the marriage for several years, maintaining a separate apartment; and their daughter has come home from college in the form of a feathered velociraptor. I’m not sure I believe some of these things are physically possible, but the story is fun, and keeps you reading! (It has a satisfying ending, too.)

“The Nameless,” by Melissa Marr, is a sort of feminist story; all protagonists are female, and the women of her village don’t breed male children. The titular nameless is a woman who was stolen by the “wolves,” the males who raid their village-on-a-plateau, cliff, or promontory. But the protagonist/narrator is also nameless; and she, too, gets stolen by the wolves, who wish only to breed with these women. Well developed and well written. I only have one quibble, and that’s because I’m male: is there no hope of ever ending this warfare between males and females?

Matthew Hughes’ Baldemar the wizard’s henchman, features in “Air of the Overworld.” Those of you who read my review (Dec. 7) of Matt’s What The Wind Brings, his magnum opus (click the title for a link to that review), know that I’m a fan of his writing. He’s been in the pages of F&SF for several years with tales of Raffalon and others, and here he goes again! Baldemar is working for Radegonde, the wizard, doing whatever menial tasks he’s told to. In this case, it’s being a subject for various spells Radegonde wants to try out on him. Baldemar’s friend and once-mentor Vunt, who is doing even more menial tasks for the wizard, is perplexed, because usually wizards guard their mana firecely so that they may go to the Overworld—Paradise, Heaven, whatever you want to call it—but Baldemar knows that Radegonde is planning to send him, Baldemar, bodily to the afterlife. This sounds like a bad idea, but nobody can refuse a wizard. It’s a long story, and like most of Baldemar’s stories, somewhat reminiscent of a Jack Vance tale told by Fritz Leiber. Great fun.

“Interlude in Arcadia” by Corey Flintoff takes place in academia, where professor Swain—a professor of Greek Classics is walking to a meeting with one of his students, a young woman named Pauli. He’s been having an illicit affair with Pauli, but he’s told her they have to break it off. She’s really upset about this. On his way there, on Euston Avenue, he sees a naked young woman walking toward him in the cold October air. She doesn’t seem to be very affected by the cold, but Swain takes off his jacket and tries to drape it around her. Realizing that his phone and wallet are in the jacket, he attempts to retrieve them, but his actions are misinterpreted by an older woman who sees the pair. All else in this story stems from those actions… and his affair with Pauli. This is a type of urban fantasy at its best. Quite enjoyable, and very well done.

“Three Gowns for Clara” by Auston Habershaw is described as an “anti-fairy fairytale” in the blurb. Clara Le Dure is an old seamstress in an out-of-the-way village who just gets by, doing the occasional mend for farmers. The Prince has proclaimed a Royal Ball, and all eligible young women are ordered to appear. He plans to choose a bride, and suddenly the Duke’s three daughters have chosen Clara’s shop; she must make three gowns in a week, when it usually takes a week to make just one. With the help of her grandniece Anna and the weaver Marietta, Clara might just do it in the little time she has, with the poor remnants of cloth Marietta was able to salvage from her own shop after it was wrecked by cloth-seeking seamstresses. But everyone knows—none more than Clara—how fairytales come out, and the poor never end up on top. Although a very sad and somewhat cautionary tale, this was so well written I have to give it a positive review.

And now we come to this issue’s novella, “Chisel and Chime” by Alex Irvine. Set in a world that has appeared, according to the blurb, in two previous issues of F&SF, it concerns the artist Melandra Cordilena, who has been chosen by Le Fure’s Imperator to make a statue of him. It will be her last work, as nobody who captures the Imperator’s image is allowed to live past the unveiling. Melandra knows this will be the culmination of her life’s work; she will be allowed to choose how she dies, and she is well content. The soldier, Brant—Brantlin Vorsin—will be with her during the next few months as she completes her last commission; we also learn Brant’s story as he tells it to her. Brant’s father is a fisherman who is gone during the winter months; his mother has a “winter man,” Moro, who is big and kind where Brant’s father is small and often angry. They say he has a demon inside him.
Brant’s story—how he became a soldier—has to do with the chimes his father made to capture the spirits of the dead; how his father, as well as Moro, died; all that was told to Melandra as she worked on the block of limestone that would be the portrait of the Imperator. There’s a well-realized world here, and a couple of well-realized stories. Quite enjoyable and an easy read, which is a good cap for a good issue.

Next column—I hope next week—I will be reviewing the Mar/April issue of F&SF. I haven’t read it yet, but I will in the next few days, and I feel confident that its contents will be at least the equal of this issue.

Comments on my column are welcome. Comment here, or on Facebook or, heck, email me! (I’m “stevefah at hotmail dot com”). All comments, good or bad, positive or negative, are welcome! (Please try to keep it polite.) 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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