Friday, May 26, 2006

Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 2006

Last month, when I was reviewing the Hugo short fiction nominees (1,2,3), I kept expecting someone to pop up and ask why, if I had such strong opinions about the nominees and, quite often, their unsuitability for major awards (and on more than one occasion, publication in a professional market), didn't I buy a voting membership in WorldCon and try to get some worthy stories on the ballot. I dreaded the question, too, because the sad truth is that I don't usually keep up with short genre fiction. I'll read author collections and, more rarely, anthologies, but I've never been up to date with the newest short fiction in the field, online or in print media. This was one of my reasons for taking Gordon Van Gelder up on his offer when he came up with a unique promotion scheme last month--free copies of Fantasy & Science Fiction's July issue for bloggers who agreed to write about them. I wanted to get a taste of the fiction that professional editors were putting out there, as opposed to the stuff that voters were putting on award ballots. I was impressed with what I found--of the nine stories, novelettes and novellas in the issue, only one is a true clunker, and the others represent a broad range of topics and styles.

In fact, my only real complaint against the magazine is that its non-fiction segments were mostly pointless. Charles de Lint reviews several novels--a couple of pulpy fantasy mysteries and the new Stephen King--but doesn't do much more than to sum up their plots and give a brief thumbs up/down. This issue's movie segment seems to have been dedicated to films about nannies--Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee, primarily--which seems oddly disconnected from the magazine's mandate. Most surprising is James Sallis' review of Ian McDonald's River of Gods. Excellent as it is, McDonalds' novel is nearly two years old, and has already gotten quite a bit of attention, not to mention a Hugo nomination (which Sallis does, in fact, neglect to mention). Sallis doesn't have anything new to say about River of Gods, either. He admires McDonald's prose and the way that his future India is grounded in contradictions, but these are all things that have been said many times before. I'm surprised by the magazine's laid back approach to genre criticism, especially given the proliferation, in the last few years, of online venues for SF criticism which offer thought-provoking and fascinating essays, reviews, and articles. If all the editors are going to offer in the way of non-fiction is unexciting, predictable fare, wouldn't it better to do away with these segments entirely and make room for at least one more short story?

The first short story in the magazine is Steven Popkes "Holding Pattern". It's not the best-written piece of fiction ever--it features some painfully awkward turns of phrase and dialogue. For the most part, however, Popkes' prose maintains a level of mediocrity that is just unobtrusive enough to let the story's intriguing plot shine through. Our protagonist is Tomas Cabon, who may have once been a genocidal South American dictator. On the other hand, he might have been one of the dictator's victims--his face altered by plastic surgery, his memories erased and replaced with the dictator's, as a way of making sure that the real man never had to face trial for his crimes. Popkes uses this premise as a launching point for a brief but thoughtful discussion about the nature of identity--is it defined by memories or by the physical being, and can an identity be taken up and discarded at will?

Terry Bisson's "Billy and the Unicorn" is a baffling piece. In the author bio, Bisson calls the Billy stories "an attempt to capture in words... the joy and the nightmare of being young." I'm not sure that "Billy and the Unicorn"--in which Billy encounters a unicorn and brings him home, where it reads porn magazines, poops precious jewels and skewers people who are mean to Billy with its horn--achieves either. It seems to be trying to be both absurd and mundane at the same time, failing at both and settling for an uncomfortable midpoint. It's the sort of story that one is probably intended to laugh at, but the nonsensical events that occur in it go through funny and out the other end into bizarre--which may very well have been the point.

Its unfortunate title notwithstanding, Matthew Hughes' short story "The Meaning of Luff" is one of the best pieces in the issue--a quiet, beautifully written variant on pulpy horror stories like "The Monkey's Paw", in which a magical object guaranteed to grant its owner riches and fame is actually the instrument of their destruction. Hughes has apparently written several stories set in the same universe as "The Meaning of Luff", but whereas this would usually indicate a steep learning curve for the uninitiated reader, here it means that Hughes can rely on the fact that his world, Old Earth, is already complete and wholly real--he doesn't need to overwhelm either us or his story with extraneous details. He concentrates, instead, on his characters--sad and desperate for both material success and spiritual meaning--and on his sing-song, nearly poetic prose.

In his short story "Republic", Robert Onopa begins from a familiar SFnal premise--human explorers encountering an alien species and fumbling in the attempt to make contact with a culture so thoroughly different from their own--with obvious roots in human history (there are numerous references in the story to the Spanish conquistadors' encounters with the Aztecs). The story ends precisely as we might expect it to end--precisely as the characters themselves seem to have expected it to end all along--and yet Onopa effortlessly creates a sense of tension and of mystery. Like the human explorers, we are intrigued by the questions that the aliens pose, by the mysteries that the story suggests but purposefully leaves unresolved. "Republic" is an intriguing story, one that I think I'm going to continue to puzzle over for a long time.

Jerry Seeger's "Memory of a Thing That Never Was" (what is it with these titles?) also starts off from a science fiction cliché--this time, humans engaged in a secret war against alien invaders--and takes it in strange directions. Seeger is more interested in exploring his protagonist's personality, and in the sadness of his situation--an old soldier left over from a war that never really managed to get started--than he is in the war itself. Again, there are obvious real-world parallels being drawn here--the crux of the story is a meeting between our human protagonist and one of his alien opponents, which is obviously meant to recall the kind of bittersweet, post-Cold War meetings between old enemies that have become a staple of spy films--but Seeger doesn't belabor them. "Memory of a Thing That Never Was" wraps up too quickly--there's almost a sense that part of the story was accidentally left out when the issue went to print--but in spite of this flaw, it is a taut and intriguing piece.

Wrapping up the issue is Heather Lindsay's "Just Do It", one of those stories that tries to get us to think about the evils of X by positing the exaggerated, dehumanizing, patently absurd grandchild of X--a neat approach when you're a teenager, but one that I've become rather tired of. In this case, X is the prevalence of advertising in our culture, and Lindsay extrapolates a world in which companies attack random people with darts that chemically force them to crave certain food products. Lindsay has the good grace not to take her premise too seriously, and to alleviate the preachiness of her approach with a fun plot and an enjoyable main character--a young woman trying to beat the system from within by taking a job at the company that makes the darts and simultaneously dating its founder. In spite of its elegant surface, the fact remains that "Just Do It" is an alarmist screed that seeks to sidestep our logical faculties by positing an outrageous premise. It is the worst kind of manipulation--the kind that doesn't work.

The only truly disappointing piece in the magazine is the novelette "Kansas, She Says, Is the Name of the Star" by R. Garcia y Robertson. It starts out as a poorly-written, unimaginative dystopia, about a rural community in which girls are sold into marriage on their thirteenth birthdays, but quickly devolves into a seemingly endless string of Wizard of Oz references--our heroine's name is Amy, but her young half-sister calls her 'Auntie Em'; she encounters an alien visitor called Dorothy, who falls from the sky; they are saved by a robot and a genetically engineered human/lion hybrid. It's all very cute, but pointless--the Oz references do nothing but conceal the paucity of Garcia's plot, the flatness of his characters, and the insufficiency of his prose. They don't manage to do this for very long.

Like "The Meaning of Luff", the novella "The Lineaments of Gratified Desire" by Ysabeau S. Wilce a continuation of a previously published piece, and this time it shows. Wilce's protagonists, the young prince and wizard in training Hardhands, and his four-year-old niece Tiny Doom, have a wealth of history that Wilce can't, or won't, convey in this action-packed story, in which Tiny Doom wanders off into the night on her city's Halloween analogue, and Hardhands is forced to drop everything and retrieve her before the ghoulies and beasties who roam the streets on a night when magic is potent and powerful can gobble her up. Hardhands and Tiny Doom are delightful characters, and Wilce is a fantastic writer. Appropriately for a story in which the characters are constantly confronted with objects of physical desire, her prose is sensual and rich in detail--she painstakingly describes everything from the flavor of a piece of chocolate melting on Hardhands' tongue to the interior design of the witch's castle in which he and Tiny Doom are captured. Ultimately, however, there is a palpable sense that "Lineaments" is only part of a much larger tapestry, a place-holder piece, to be followed by the actual story of which we are still entirely ignorant.

I'm not quite sure that the folks at F&SF got their money's worth out of me--rereading this entry, it seems that I can't quite stop myself from being critical. I did enjoy the July issue, however, and I thank them for giving me this opportunity to catch a glimpse of their corner of fandom.

6 comments:

niall said...

A few years ago, I was reading most of the major magazines in the field most of the time. These days, although I still have subs to F&SF and Asimov's, and buy most issues of Interzone and Postscripts, I tend to use magazines as spare-time reading. I have a big stack sitting in my flat, and just pick one up when I have the urge to read a short story. This more or less works for me; it lets me keep up with interesting stories (someone says "hey, story X is great!" and I can go and read it) without feeling I'm committed to slogging through entire issues (which I just don't have the time to do at the moment).

I don't have the July F&SF yet because overseas postal speed being what it is, a given issue doesn't usually arrive on my doorstep until a month or two after it's been published in the US. So I can't comment on the fiction. I do usually find that F&SF gives me the best hit-rate at the moment.

On the non-fiction, though--the magazine does alternate its reviewers. I agree that Charles de Lint's book column is lightweight (but then, that is what it's intended as--'books to look for'), but Elizabeth Hand also reviews for the magazine regularly, and in somewhat more depth. Similarly, Lucius Shepard often contributes film reviews. And lastly, on River of Gods--it's old news to us, but it's only just been published in the US, so a lot of the magazine's subscribers won't have encountered it before.

You know, it almost sounds like you want to write an occasional magazine review column ... (Yes, I have been reading The Issue at Hand. Why do you ask?)

William Lexner said...

I've been reading our blog since it was linked on Locus. It's interesting at times, but often so incredibly wordy that it borders on the absurd.

You take the opportunity to dismiss the reviews of Charles de Lint, but I believe his reviewing style is the absolute ideal. Thought-provoking and fascinating essays on work are just that -- essays. Not reviews.

I like to read novels. I do not like to read books about them. What to you is fascinating, to me is masturbatory claptrap. For the love of Zeus, if I read one more 'review' that tells me how I should feel or what I should 'get' from a book, I'll fucking stab someone.

Reviews must be succinct, and answer two questions only:

"What's it about?" & "Is it any good?"

Anything and everything else is fluff.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Niall:

Yeah, about five minutes after I hit 'post' I started wondering if maybe I had just happened on a bad month for reviews (I've heard good stuff - and incredibly irate stuff - about Lucius Shepard's film reviews).

As for River of Gods, I see what you're saying (although I hadn't realized that its publication date in the US was so recent - March. I was sure it had been at least six months). That said, Sallis' review was just so surface-y - it really doesn't do much more than describe the plot. I guess online fans really aren't the magazine's target audience when it comes to non-fiction - we're more likely to ignore the UK/US divide and both hear about and seek out a book that's not available locally (and as far as I'm concerned, none of these books are available locally so I'm frequently unaware of the difference).

On the other hand, perhaps I shouldn't lay claim to superior, internet-derived erudition when I find myself flummoxed by statements like this:

(Yes, I have been reading The Issue at Hand. Why do you ask?)

Huh?

William:

It's interesting at times, but often so incredibly wordy that it borders on the absurd.

Yeah. I can't really argue with that one.

Reviews must be succinct, and answer two questions only:

"What's it about?" & "Is it any good?"


I'd say that that's a problematic definition even if you eschew the essay style that I enjoy. One person's masterpiece is another's piece of crap. At the very least, a good review should tell you why the book in question is good or bad, and it should work pretty hard to convince you of the reviewer's opinion. De Lint's reviews, at least in the July issue, don't seem to be working pretty hard at anything.

Graham said...

It's interesting at times, but often so incredibly wordy that it borders on the absurd.

Yeah. I can't really argue with that one.


But that's not an actual *problem*, you realise...

niall said...

You can find a bunch of Lucius Shepard's film reviews here.

Without wishing to generalise, I get the impression that US fans, even when online, spend less time seeking out UK-published books than vice versa. I saw many many posts, when the Hugo nomination list came out last year, saying "I've never heard of this River of Gods book"; and for another example, Tricia Sullivan's Maul has just come out in the US, whereas everyone over here read it three years ago. Mind you, there's an exchange rate issue there as well.

Huh?

Oops, sorry. The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand: two shortish collections of review-essays, mainly but not exclusively about magazine sf, by William Atheling Jnr, aka James Blish. Probably the most perceptive curmudgeon you're likely to read anytime soon. But it did make me think how few really good magazine review columns there are at the moment; they almost all try to cover as much as possible, whereas the great thing about Atheling was that he'd take three or four stories, dissect them in detail, and talk about the issues they raised.

And needless to say I agree with you rather than William about review style. :)

Lou Anders said...

As the US editor on River of Gods, I must say I am grateful that magazines and websites do review UK books when they come out later in the states. Ian was dropped by his previous US publisher some years ago, and raising awareness that he is back in the states - and support for the US edition as opposed to the UK, which is all too readily avaible on Amazon and through many independant booksellers, directly contributes to our ability to continue to publish him in this market. If magazines took the attitude that, "Well, this is already out in Britain so no point in touting it here," I guarantee you that would negatively impact our chances of bringing out more UK fiction stateside.

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