Two reviews for the price of one. Come on, tell me you don’t get great value over here at Last Short Story.
This year will be 14 years since Gordon Van Gelder took over as the Managing Editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction (a magazine that celebrates its 62nd year of uninterrupted publication). I’ve always had a soft spot for F&SF. Since 1998, when my bookseller Justin Ackroyd first pushed the magazine onto me, I’ve collected every issue. And while I can’t say I’ve kept up to date with the magazine, during my infrequent F&SF reading splurges there’s never been a time when I didn’t enjoy an issue.
Now, over the last few years there’s been quite a bit of criticism levelled at F&SF. Some of that has had to do with the magazine not publishing enough new talent, especially female talent. And then there’s Gordon’s refusal to accept electronic submissions. There’s also this feeling that the magazine is old fashioned, that the stories published feel like they come through a time warp from 1983.
Last Short Story provides me with an opportunity (actually, I was going to say compelled there, but that implies people are forcing me to read these damn short stories) to spend 12 months with F&SF and to have my critical hat on when I’m reading the stories. I can’t promise I’m going to be able to deal with those criticisms above, but I’m personally curious to see how many female writers are published, what the break-up is of new talent vs old and whether there is something tired about the stories.
On the surface, the Jan-Feb issue only reinforces the notion of gender disparity and the idea that the F&SF is the home of the well seasoned writer. Kate Wilhelm and Patricia MacEwen are the only female writers to appear, which I personally think is a very poor effort considering the issue features 11 stories and 12 writers. In terms of burgeoning new and young talent, well, not all the names are familiar, but a quick flick through the interwebs shows that the majority of these guys have been around for some time. There’s nothing wrong with that, each of these writers know their craft and I can see why any editor would come back to people who can produce a competent and entertaining piece of writing. But it also means that F&SF is missing a trick in broadening its audience by publishing some of the new talent on the block. (Maybe this has to do with the lack of electronic submissions).
So what of the stories? There are no standouts in the issue, but most of the stories are well written and, aside from one exception, kept my attention for the duration. My favourites were The Bogle by long time F&SF contributor Albert E Cowdrey (who’s a very under-rated writer) and Long Time by Rick Norwood. In The Bogle Cowdrey tells the story of a family whose eldest son, Tom, goes Missing in Action in the Korean War. However, when the youngest son, Donny, has a near death experience, Tom’s spirit takes that opportunity to take over his younger brother. While the supernatural aspect of the story isn’t particularly original, Cowdrey’s dissection of a family whose parents play favourites – the mother loves Tom, the father loves Donny – elevates the piece beyond its supernatural trappings.
Long Time by Rick Norwood is an entertaining piece about an immortal who gets caught up in the legend of Gilgamesh. The immortal narrator’s matter of fact of voice means that the melodrama is kept to minimum, inspite of the fact that we get to meet Ishtar and Gog and Magog and even Pan. Actually the battle between the giants is one of the highlights of the piece. However, the stories treatment of woman is poor, and while I get that there’s a “historical context” to it, the matter of fact style means that the piece feels misogynistic. This is one story where I’d be interested to know what other felt.
Other stories I liked were Pat MaEewen’s Home Sweet Bi’Ome about a hyper allergic woman who lives a reclusive life in a house built from her DNA. It’s an inventive and lively piece, though the lonely woman who discovers she now needs a man in her life to make everything OK, left a bad taste in my mouth. I also thought Kate Wilhelm’s The Bird Cage was an enjoyable near future thriller involving a sleep study experiment that goes wrong. My main issue with this is that it did feel a bit old and creaky around the edges and I don’t think the story is saying anything new about the ethics of medical research and experimentation.
It was also nice to see Australia’s own Chris Lawson feature in the magazine with a piece entitled Canterbury Hollow. It’s an interesting piece about two people who’ve decided to spend their last few weeks together before they’re sent to their deaths (as part of a death ballot). The idea of dwindling resources forcing a society to send random people to their deaths is disturbing. I’m not sure, though, that I had enough investment in the relationship or characters for the idea of their inevitable death to have an impact.
The issue also features a cute zombie love story by Bill Pronzini and Barry Malzberg and a fun sequel to Richard Lupoff’s 12:01, this time entitled (originally) 12:02.
Overall, though, I doubt this issue is going to change the mind of the F&SF critics out there.
Analog surprised me this month by publishing a 4/5 story – Jerry Oltion’s Taboo.
Taboo is set in a far future where most illness and disease has been cured and where people live near immortal lives. Against that backdrop a man and woman meet in an Art Gallery and immediately hit it off. They discover, though, that their relationship is a little more complicated then they first expected. Oltion cleverly uses the SF conceit of long life to undermine and question our hard-coded assumptions about healthy and unhealthy relationships. It’s a deft and clever piece of writing, and to be honest it’s not the sort of story I expected to see published in Analog. So much for my assumptions.
Taboo probably won’t end up appearing on Year’s Bests when November rolls around, but it is a good story and worth reading if you can get your hands on it.
The remainder of the stories are entertaining but mostly forgettable. I have a soft spot for John G Hemry’s time travel story Betty Knox and Dictionary Jones in the Mystery of the Missing Teenage Anachronisms, but the conclusion is very silly and needlessly post modern. Astronomic Distance, Geologic Time by Bud Sparhawk had the making of a fantastic story as it juxtaposes the lineage of a family against a billions year long journey to find the edge of the Universe. But it falls apart toward the end. I also thought Julie is Three by Brad Aiken and Hiding from Nobel by Craig DeLancey
had strong ideas at their centre but could have been better executed.