Monday, February 25, 2013

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January-February 2013

I've been experimenting with Kindle magazine subscriptions lately, and read the most recent issue of F&SF. Here are some quick thoughts on the fiction:

*Alex Irvine, "Watching the Cow": this novelette got the cover and first position. I wish I knew why, or that I felt anything much about it. A VR experiment by the narrator's sister goes wrong and blinds two million children, including the narrator's son and daughter. You'd think something interesting would come of that, but it's all remarkably undramatic. It's nice that Irvine avoids the melodrama of exaggerating the conflict between the narrator and his sister, or the narrator and his wife, or the narrator and his kids, as they all cope with what's happened... but the result is a story that offers nothing to care about. Something intriguing is happening offscreen, and something happens at the end that might have even more intriguing consequences, but the story skims over all of that in favor of the narrator's bland psychological processes. It also offers the unlikely prospect of an average guy who can outsmart the FBI, which apparently doesn't know how to track the activities of the family of a wanted fugitive. I could forgive that, if I saw a point to the story. But I don't.

*David Gerrold, "Night Train to Paris": once this gets going, it's a decent traditional horror story. But first you have to get through an overlong introductory section, in which we learn that Gerrold was reading A Game of Thrones and doesn't like lolcats or beggars, or talking to people on public transportation. I recognize, of course, that the reality-derived frame story is a time-honored ghostly device, but it doesn't need to go on so long, or tell the reader so little. The ending, though well-executed, is nothing you haven't seen before, and the thematic matter that's been laid across it doesn't add much.

*Ken Liu, "A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel": easily the best thing in the issue. An alternate history about an unlikely solution to the Great Depression, and its horrifying price. The structure, alternating between the narrator's personal account and the history of the tunnel, is common to alternate history, but there's a lot packed into this 6,000-word story, including a cross-cultural love affair, a technological marvel, and an unsettling confession. Even with all that, this isn't a breathtaking piece of fiction, but it comes close. I can see why Liu has received so many awards and nominations, and look forward to reading more of his work.

*Matthew Hughes, "Devil or Angel": this might be charming if it were a lot shorter, but at 16,000 words it does the opposite of growing on you. The characters are broadly drawn; the female antagonist is described as follows: "if Krissa Bolide were a car, she'd come with only forward gears and no rearview mirror." That's cute, but it's hardly deep characterization, and the plot depends on similarly cheap binaries of good and evil. It's an afterlife scenario that melds devils and angels with reincarnation, and never suggests that judging people in black-and-white terms might not be the best idea. The system is shown to be flawed, but only because the male protagonist, on his way to afterlife processing, touches the ethereal body of an acquaintance who is PURE EVIL, and thereby catches a case of evil cooties. Apparently this has never happened before in human history, so he is misjudged and separated from his true love. The structure makes the ending obvious pretty far in advance, and the climactic action sequence, while fun in a goofy way, doesn't justify all the time spent getting there. Maybe I'm just a grouch, but I wanted this story to be more complicated than it was.

*Dale Bailey, "This is How You Disappear": middle-aged angst with a surrealist spin. A few passages capture the guilt and fear involved in recognizing a moment where you might make a connection and failing to act on it, but mostly this story is, despite the details of its protagonist's family life, too generic to bring home the emotional malaise it describes, and feels more like an exercise in pity than profound fiction. I admire the craft, but there's no spark.

*Albert E. Cowdrey, "A Haunting in Love City": a psychic detective story. The scare, when it comes, is good, as in the Gerrold, and there's some stereotype-driven but genial background, as in the Hughes. This is better than either of those, but despite some modern trappings it's fundamentally old-fashioned, and (do you sense a theme here?) I wanted something more. In a different frame of mind I might have been more satisfied. The interaction between the detective and his husband is sort of amusing, anyway.

*Desmond Warzel, "The Blue Celeb": two barbers discover a car with an astonishing power. Or it would be astonishing, if cars and other things didn't demonstrate this kind of power in a lot of modern horror fiction. Like all four of the issue's novelettes, this is undeservedly slow-paced, and it's another story that isn't executed quite well enough to sell its well-worn premise. The text acknowledges that wisecracking Harlem barbers are a cliche, but indulges in them anyway, and the wisecracks aren't especially good, at least not enough so to justify the sassy, saintly, overweight elderly woman who also appears. With stock characters like these, an attempt to comment on life and death in the world of urban violence doesn't have much impact, though the last couple pages work fairly well all the same.

*Robert Reed, "Among Us": I like the twist in this one, which plays on familiar motifs and narrative contrivances of contemporary SF in a fairly clever way. But it feels more like the prologue to something larger than like a complete story in itself. Its aliens don't do anything worth reading about, and while that may be the point, it leads to a story that's underwhelming rather than understated. I do like the subtlety of the ending, though, which a lot of people may not pick on up. Unless I'm the one who's reading it wrong...

*Judith Moffett, "Ten Lights and Darks": a reporter assigned to a psychic, expecting to uncover a fraud, but... You can probably write the rest of the summary yourself, and despite a couple tweaks, this story basically develops according to formula. The big difference is that it's a pet psychic, or "animal communicator," but the methods and results are basically the same. Characterization here is thin-- the dog is about as well-developed as any of the humans-- and while the plot development is not as heavy-handed as it might be, there's still nothing here that earns 10,000 words' worth of the reader's time.

If I were describing whether to subscribe based on this issue, the answer would be "No," but the digital subscription is cheap enough that I can give it more time, and I know F&SF has published writers (M. Rickert, Richard Bowes) and stories (Carolyn Ives Gilman's "The Ice Owl") I really admire. So I'll definitely read the next issue, and I may be back at some point with comments on it. I also have digital subscriptions to (so far) Apex, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed, and I may write about those. So this blog could be coming out of its long hibernation. Or not.