You’re probably all familiar with the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF, as it’s familiarly called). I have reviewed issues in the past, and intend to review each bimonthly issue as it is published (yes, I’m a bit late this issue, but it’s been a hectic holiday season.) F&SF and I go way back, even if they don’t know it; it was one of the earliest SF magazines I read (along with Astounding Science Fiction, now called Analog). I was actually born a couple of years before F&SF was—it first saw the light of day in 1949. It’s been edited by a number of people since its inception; I’ve been lucky enough to have known a couple of them personally: Avram Davidson (Figure 1), whom I became friends with, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who is married to one of my good friends, Dean Wesley Smith. Unlike Astounding/Analog, which mostly published “straight” SF (with a leavening of humourous SF), F&SF has always (especially since it began life as The Magazine of Fantasy) mixed SF with fantasy in its pages—most successfully, I would argue.
I could go on and wax lyrical about all the different things F&SF has contributed to the world of SF—for example, if any of you are old enough to remember Gore Vidal’s “Visit to a Small Planet,” which was made into a teleplay starring Cyril Ritchard (the original Captain Hook from Peter Pan), and then into a movie with Jerry Lewis. (Even so-called “mainstream” people have heard of that one.) Writers? F&SF has had ‘em all—from Piers Anthony (“SOS The Rope”), to Robert A. Heinlein (“The Door Into Summer”) to Jack Vance (“The Overworld”), to Roger Zelazny (“Jack of Shadows”) and everyone between! The art, both cover and interior, has been a veritable Who’s Who of SF/F art, from Wayne Barlow, through Chesley Bonestell, Ed Emshwiller, Frank Kelly Freas, Jack Gaughan, Mel Hunter, David A. Hardy, Ron Walotsky and Gahan Wilson (not to mention a couple of interior cartoons by my own wife, the Lovely and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk). The humour? Well, there are the aforementioned cartoons, by lots of different artists, and if you’re of a certain age, you’ll certainly remember Feghoots! (Who?) Ferdinand Feghoot, whose improbably hilarious shaggy dog-type adventures were chronicled by the pseudonymous Grendel Briarton (mostly Reginald Bretnor). And more: book and movie reviews—well, yes, a lot of magazines have ‘em, but F&SF’s current issue’s column is by none other than Charles de Lint (and there’s a second book column, by James Sallis)! And its science columns have been written by Isaac Asimov and Dr. Gregory Benford, and it has won Hugos, Nebulas and Ghu knows what else! The current owner/publisher is Gordon van Gelder, by the way. But I won’t tell you about it; you can look all that stuff up for yourself.
So what’s in the current issue of F&SF? Well, they have a wonderful cover by Bob Eggleton (Figure 2), “The Martian Vortex,” illustrating Greg Benford’s “Vortex,” plus all the usual magazine stuff, like the two book columns: de Lint’s touts two recent Stephen King books (not really horror or SF), called Mr. Mercedes (see my 2014 review) and Finders Keepers, plus more; the other book review column, by James Sallis, tackles The End of the End of Everything, by Dale Bailey, and Ghost Summer: Stories, by Tananarive Due who, among her many other accomplishments, is married to Stephen Barnes! Not content to rest on its laurels, F&SF continues with a film commentary column by David J. Skal, who touches on the post-apocalyptic small-release movies Z for Zacharia and Air. (I haven’t seen the first one, but the second one gave me a resounding “meh” feeling. It was—as Skal notes—way too long for what it was. But it had Norman Reedus in it [he plays Darryl on The Walking Dead] and he’s always watchable.) Then there’s a science column, as usual—but this one is written by Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy—she’s a good writer I met more than 30 years ago, briefly. The column, “Welcome to Pleistocene Park,” concerns a Russian, Sergey Zimov, and his real-life attempt to change a six-kilometer-square area of what used to be “Mammoth Steppe” back into its Pleistocene equivalent! Absolutely fascinating stuff—especially since it might give a little positive spin to the inevitable global warming we’re experiencing, and possibly resurrect a little bit of the past. And lastly, there’s a little page about “Curiosities,” by Graham Andrews; this particular column is about the fastest man on Earth, circa 1943—no, not The Flash. This is a “faction” column; a bit of fact about a bit of fiction masquerading as fact. Or is it?
And now we get to the meat of the issue: the fiction. What? You thought all that was the meat? Hey, this F&SF is a really meaty animal! And it’s almost all futurism—i.e., near-future fiction (well, there’s a good leavening of fantasy, too).
Let’s start with the trio of Martian stories: “Vortex” (the cover story) by Gregory Benford; “Rockets Red” by Mary Robinette Kowal and “Number Nine Moon” by Alex Irvine. “Vortex” is a near-future story; it takes place about five years after the first “permanent” Martian settlers arrive from the Western powers. As Benford points out in the intro, methane emissions detected by Mars rovers are a sure pointer that there is microbial life under the surface of Mars. But what kind of life? The story brings out some likely ideas, and also brings in a spot of Earthly politics to muddy the waters. I have to say I really enjoyed this story. The Kowal story is a very short, but very punchy story set on a Mars from another timeline. “Rockets Red” involves a programmer—this one for a pyrotechnics company—whose family moved to Mars when the first permanent colony was established in 1954. It’s now 1974, and the program for the celebratory pyro display outside the dome is stored on a bunch of punch cards, ‘cos that’s the high-tech way they rolled in 1974. (Anyone else remember Hollerith cards and how different it was to type on a card puncher than on a typewriter?) As I said, short but punchy—pun intended.
Irvine’s “Number Nine Moon” is about quitting. Or not quitting. It’s really well written, but I don’t like it, because Earth is abandoning Mars. I know that if we had food/water/fuel crises on Earth abandoning our space colonies would be the smart thing to do, but as one of the characters says to himself, something like “I thought humanity was like an eaglet, poking its head out of the shell, but it’s more like a turtle, withdrawing back into it.” The story makes me sad—which is good writing, because it’s affecting—but I’m not ready at this point to think about Earth abandoning its Mars colonies and pulling back.
Terry Bisson’s “Robot From The Future” is almost indescribable. It’s told from a future kid’s point of view, and that’s about all I can say about it. It’s about a boy in The Greaning (near-future), or maybe after The Greaning, whatever that is. He’s walking in the woods with his Underdog (her name’s Bette, and she has a chip) and meets a robot from the future, who wants “Gas-o-line.” But Gas-o-line is forbidden these days. But a lot of Bisson is kind of indescribable, isn’t it?
“Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going to Do?” by Nick Wolven is also futurism; it’s an entirely different future. We, in our present, have experienced many kinds of terrorism already, but are we ready for mediaterrorism? I don’t think so…. it would be funny if it weren’t probably prophetic.
One of the first few things that strikes you about Leo Vladimirsky’s “Squidtown” is reading about the Islamic Republic of Texas and how Dallas has been renamed “D’Allahs.” Then you find out the protagonist had his tongue cut out when he was 17. It goes on from there. Kind of depressing. But well written.
When I say that Betsy James has written a story that to me reads very much like one of Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s in “Touch Me All Over,” I’m paying her a compliment. It has what we used to call the “Kiriki” feel to it; it’s a fantasy about a young woman named Hilil who is a knotmaker. She knows the names of all the knots in the world, like “Up Sideways, Pig in the Fire, She Lies Down Happy, Windwhistle, See Peace, Hand Me Over; and Four Low, Kneebreak, and Seven Hands” and more. But she sees a glass knife in a badger’s tip and does a foolish thing: she picks it up. It’s a very hopeful story, and I liked it a lot.
“Smooth Stones and Empty Bones,” by Bennett North, is a first sale. It’s a fantasy about witchcraft and resurrection. Not really a hopeful ending, but it has a certain quiet dignity to it; I don’t think this will be North’s last sale.
Matthew Hughes’s “Telltale” is a story from the Archonate universe, about Raffonale the thief. Raffonale has a commission to steal a certain set of antique Cilistrian thumb-cymbals; he’s being paid double Guild rate. He’s a very good thief, but maybe he shouldn’t have tried to steal from a wizard; at least not a real one.
“The Visionaries,” by Albert E. Cowdrey, is a tale of a haunted forest. Not a ghostly haunting, but rather something more akin to Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” although there’s nothing to see there, no otherworldly colours or visitations from spooks or dead people. It’s just an area of a “tree farm”—a really big tree farm—that people and animals avoid because it feels “wrong.” And this is the story of Jimmy and Morrie, who didn’t know how they cleared it, and of Angie and Milton, who didn’t know that they had. And thereby hangs a tale, as they say.
Now we come to “Braid of Days and Wake of Nights,” by E. Lily Yu, which is dedicated to Jay Lake and Bronwen Lake. I only knew Jay through Facebook, where we posted the usual snippets to each other that people do on Facebook, but his writing was sharp and wonderful. I regret not having the chance to know him better. In this story, Julia’s friend Vivian has shaved her shoulderblade-length hair before chemotherapy takes it all away; Julia has added strands of her own to make a 9-foot braid, even though Vivian doesn’t want it. This braid features in a story of love and loss and, perhaps, redemption. While the participants in the story aren’t sure, we are. Nicely told.
The introduction to David Gerrold’s “The White Piano” says it’s the first ghost story he’s ever done, but you wouldn’t know it. It builds nicely, with a smooth ending—no shock or schlock, but with a kind of inevitability, like a piece of good piano music. Coincidentally, almost every piece of music he mentions in this story is a particular favourite of mine—although my piano-playing friends often deride me for liking what they call “chestnuts”—including Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (the latter being the only piece of piano music I ever taught myself to play; I can only do a few bars of it now). So Gerrold and I (or at least his characters and I) are very much in agreement about some kinds of music!
If you have any comments on this week’s column I’d love to see them. You can comment here, on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. I might not agree with your comments, but they’re all welcome. Don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment, either; my opinion is, as always, my own. And it doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!