It appears to have been longer than a week since I said “See you next week,” don’t you think? Well, I actually took last week off from the column to write a short story. As you probably recall, I said I was going to cut down from doing a weekly column to skipping one or two columns, maybe every month… to do some writing.
So I wrote a short story, submitted it to the market I was aiming for, and beat their deadline by an hour! Whew! As I may have said before, writing fiction and non-fiction use completely different writing muscles—and brain cells, I think—and it takes an effort to switch from one to the other.
Plus, it’s easy to get ideas for stories, whether you have that P.O. Box in Schenectady or not1, but not always easy to turn an idea into a finished product. I hope I will be able to continue completing stories in the appropriate time frame—as my friend Gregg Chamberlain seems to do on a weekly basis!—and I will post market opportunities here as I encounter them. Fair enough?
Here it is, October already—and if you haven’t had, or taken, the time to read the current (Sept./Oct. 2017) issue of F&SF (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction), you might be interested to read what I think about the stories therein. As always, my reviews and opinions are biased by my own experience—and I’ve read many thousands of SF stories and books—while your opinions might differ. That’s all right; everyone has an opinion, but some are more interesting than others. And I will endeavour not to give spoilers for the stories, because that disappoints some people.
Starting with the cover story, “Starlight Express,” by Michael Swanwick, which is also the last story in the issue—the 68th anniversary issue, no less—we find a far future Earth, as poor as dirt, where the locals have forgotten most of the technology used in the last few centuries or millennia. The protagonist, Flaminio, lives in Rome, one of the poorest cities of the poor, and his “day job” is as a water carrier to the five floors of his building.
Nearby is an artifact from Earth’s heyday, which used to carry people to and from the far reaches of the universe; a continual light beam of sorts. But alas! Nobody remembers how it works, and nobody who attempts it ever returns—so people are using it for a latter-day form of suicide. But one woman, oddly enough, appears to have come to Earth—she’s obviously of African heritage (as the cover painting shows)—as the first return traveler. Nicely written—which one would expect from a writer of Swanwick’s calibre.
Moving to the first story, “Evil Opposite,” by Naomi Kritzer, who won the short-story Hugo last year (2016). Our unnamed protagonist is a Ph.D. student in physics, who’s working as a TA (Teaching Assistant) to a Professor Goodman, who believes in the multiverse theory. Protag (as I’ll call him) has a nemesis; one Shane, who is the research assistant for Professor Goodman, and a bit of—no, a lot of—an ass. He’s privileged and condescending, and Protag and other grad students hate him.
One day Protag and the other grad students (including Shane) are talking about the multiverse, assuming that everyone would have an evil twin (à la Star Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror” episode), and Protag realizes that he can, based on Professor Goodman’s unpublished research, build what Goodman calls a “quantum spyglass”; that is, a device that will allow him to peek into nearby universes. He does so, and discovers that—oh, wait, I promised no spoilers. But it’s a satisfying story and conclusion.
One of the longest stories in this issue is “Leash on a Man,” by the indefatigable Robert Reed, who I met at a party for the first annual Writers of the Future award-winners. (Alas, my WoF Volume 1 paperback, signed by most of the winners, was damaged in a house flood.) Reed’s story is a tale of a future Earth, when humans are wont to use both genetic and machine modifications to change themselves and, it is hinted, the animals of Earth, in ways that might be shocking to today’s people.
The protagonist, one Porous Mirth, has some Neanderthal genes, and works as a prison guard. The warden (Mirth’s third) is mostly human, some mechanical. The prison is about to receive a new prisoner: a girl who apparently killed thousands of people on what we would call a LaGrange Habitat, but which are now called “Crystals,” because the earliest ones were city-sized glass and aluminum-mirrored habitats put in orbit for the extremely rich and intelligent.
The story is an exploration of what it means to be human—in an increasingly strange world (as ours is beginning to be). Many people in today’s world have a hard time comprehending, let alone understanding, the changes in biology, genetics, electronics, computing, social mores (dare I be snarky and liken them to the so-called “alt-right”?) from the 1950s on; what changes will the next century or so bring? Reed may or may not be offering a solution.
“The Hermit of Houston,” by Samuel R. Delany, is the second story I read (I don’t read these in sequence; in fact, you’re seeing my reviews in reading order. I jump around as the whim strikes me.) that mentions a character is female and was born that way. Which is shorthand, as I’m sure you can guess, for a future where gender (and sex) is/are very fluid. (This is one of the changes in social morés that some people may not be able to accept or understand. Unless Nehemia Scudder2 or one of his ilk comes forth to change the way the U.S. works, this is indeed the way our future may be.)
It’s a very good story, but it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what kind of story it is. Everything’s fluid: is it Houston in Texas, or is it Mexico? Is the character male or female? It’s not recommended for younger readers, as it contains a fair amount of (overt, consensual, and detailed) sex, pretty much all gay male (which is not surprising, as Delaney himself is a gay male). I enjoyed the story, but I will probably have to reread it at least once more to be sure of what happens—which may help explain why “Chip” Delaney was named a grandmaster by the members of SFFWA.
“We Are Born” is the first F&SF-published story by Dare Segun Falowo, a writer from Lagos, Nigeria. It’s very interesting, and concerns a person made out of clay, which features in many folk legends (including, I believe, some Christian mythology, as well as the well-known Rabbi Loew’s Golem). This well-written tale also shares something with the previously-mentioned stories, but I’m not going to say what, because spoilers.
Gwendolyn Clare‘s “Tasting Notes on the Varietals of the Southern Coast” is an SF/F tale of death and destruction told from the viewpoint of a prissy oenophile, who prizes the wines his emperor gets from conquest more than he does the people who suffer during the conquest. Well done! I’ll look for more from her.
“The Care of House Plants” by Jeremy Minton brings us back to today’s Earth, or a more near-future Earth. According to F&SF, this story was “inspired, in part, by mycorrhizae, fungal networks that exchange information and material in the rhizosphere between root systems—kind of like an internet for plants.” It’s a horror story of sorts. Quite creepy—no pun intended.
Oliver Buckram brings the humour with “Hollywood Squid.” It’s a “day after tomorrow”-type story, meaning it could be taking place at any time from now on; the protagonist is a director in Hollywood, whose last movie bombed. The movie, Alien Episcopalian, opened on Friday…and the real aliens landed on Saturday. He never made another successful movie, but he’s now partnered with one of the aliens. Who are… squids. Not only squids, but practical-joker squids. With a premise like that, who needs losers like Rob Schneider? (Just joking, Rob.) A fun, almost-a-Feghoot-type story.
Fellow Canadian Rebecca Campbell has only been writing SF since 2015. And now she has a story in F&SF; I officially hate her! (Just kidding. I’m happy for her. Sob.) Her story, “On Highway 18,” is supposedly an offshoot of when she actually used to hitchhike as a teenager. This story, apparently set—though it’s never actually mentioned—on Vancouver Island, will have resonance for many West Coast Canadians, because of the number of mostly indigenous women who have vanished while hitchhiking; the so-called “Highway of Tears.” As a mature (in years, anyway) male, thinking about the vulnerability of women hitchhiking makes me shudder; it’s almost a certainty that crimes against women are perpetrated by males. (I hesitate to call them “men.”) Anyway, it’s the story of Petra, and Jen, and a friendship that they swore would last forever; and a hitchhiking ghost; and all those things that happen to make us what we are in time. I really liked this story and wish I could write like Ms. Campbell.
“Still Tomorrow’s Going to Be Another Working Day,” by Amy Griswold, takes its title from one of my favourite songs by one of America’s best poets, Paul Simon. If you’ve never heard “American Tune,” I urge you to go get it, now. But back to the story, which has nothing to do with the song. Just two working women. Trying to get along. Remember the movie Repo Men? Well, this isn’t that horrific (and it doesn’t have, like Monty Python, the machine that goes “ping!”), but you’ve gotta keep up the payments. ‘Nuff said.
“Bodythoughts,” by Rahul Kanakia, explores what it is to be in love. Especially if you’re an alien, a 334Leg Rigellian, and the person you love is an Earthian, a human. And… can love be perverse or perverted? Interspecies love? Only George 334Leg knows for sure! A fun story. Probably disgusting if you’re a Rigellian, so if you are, don’t come whining to me.
Lisa Mason’s “Riddle” is set in a city we both love, San Francisco. (If you have been paying attention, you’ll remember that her book Summer of Love has a special resonance for me, because I spent that particular Summer in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.) This story takes place in North Beach, where in the ‘60s, Carol Doda (a 44DD, thanks to implants!) danced topless at the Condor Club. (If you remember the movie Dirty Harry, North Beach is near where the church was.) Edwin Stone is an artist; his girlfriend Nikki has left him. She did so partly because of his lack of ambition, because he was content to just get by with his talent—but there are always multiple reasons for breakups—but Stone has decided his best friend is the boilermaker. (I had my first boilermakers in San Francisco, which residents call The City; never “Frisco.”) One night, completely drunk, Edwin rescues a vagrant sphinx. Part woman, part lion, all riddle. If you remember what happens to those who can’t answer The Riddle of the Sphinx, you might guess this story’s end. (Or not.) Nicely written!
Tina Connolly’s “The Two-Choice Foxtrot of Chapham County” is written in a kind of back-country dialect—it’s the kind of story I’ve done myself a time or three—but concerns something familiar to just about every community, back-country or big-city. When spring comes, a few woods colts are born here and there; and in Chapham County, they’re born as stone babies. This is the story of one such, and its effect on our protagonist, who likes going off-script. Well done!
“Children of Xanadu,” by Juan Paulo Rafols, is another of the longest stories in this issue, and another first sale, by a Puerto Rican author. (I hope that, after the recent hurricanes, Sr. Rafols and his family are okay.) The story is set in a future that I hope won’t be a possibility; the entire world is controlled by China. The US Seventh Fleet, and all its sailors, form an artificial reef off the coast of Luzon, the largest of the Philippine islands. There are Chinese (“Han”) soldiers in the streets of Manila and robot fliers watching for subversive acts from the populace. Technology—semi-autonomous robots—has defeated even the guerilla fighters. The Han are working on making their children better than ever before; in fact, not even human, as they cannot interbreed with their progenitors. The protagonist, “Dr. Garcia,” is not even who he seems to be. This is a story of revolution; but even those who support revolution cannot be sure of what the result will be when it succeeds.
By the way, you can read all this issue’s non-fiction articles, like Charles de Lint’s (8 books reviewed) and James Sallis’s book reviews; Kathi Maio’s film column about Anne Hathaway’s Colossal (a film both my wife and I enjoyed, though sometimes I find Hathaway’s acting a bit wearing); Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty’s science column (about practical invisibility!); coming attractions, and a “Curiosities” column—by Robert Eldridge—about a mostly-forgotten 1920 SF/F book called The Great Demonstration, by a writer named Katharine Metcalf Roof, here. I dunno ‘bout you, but I’ve long turned to the non-fiction first when reading F&SF (or any other SF/F magazine).
SHORT TAKES: There’s a new StoryBundle curated by Kevin J. Anderson: the SF Adventure Bundle. Like all StoryBundles, you can pay a basic fee of $5, which gets you five SF ebooks, but if you pay $15 or more, you get bonus ebooks. See Figure X for titles. This one expires in 20 days (from today, Friday). Go get ‘em!
AND IF THAT’S NOT ENOUGH, Humble Bundle also has an SF bundle available, with four different levels: $1, $8, $15, $18; you get books by authors ranging from Poul Anderson to Buzz Aldrin (with John Barnes); from Greg Bear to Timothy Zahn—at the $18 level you’ll get books by 20 authors! (Like the above, it’s ebooks, naturally.) And all Humble Bundles’ profits go to charity. This offer expires in about 11-12 days.
1Harlan Ellison has long maintained that, when asked “Where do you get your ideas?” he and other SFFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) members send money to a post office box in Schenectady, NY and receive ideas in a plain brown wrapper by return mail.
2Nehemia Scudder was a religious leader in Robert A. Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—“, collected in Revolt in 2100 (part of his “future history” series), who led a crusade that turned the US into a rigid religious state. Though he wasn’t the only SF writer back in the 1950s who’d had the idea that it could happen. See Judith Merril and Cyril Kornbluth’s novel Gunner Cade (published as Cyril Judd) as well.
If you can, please comment on this week’s column. Comment here, or on my Facebook page, or in the Facebook groups where I link to this column. Don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment, either. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!