Saturday, August 30, 2008

Fantasy & Science Fiction, October/November 2008

Following a similar experiment a couple of years ago, the folks at Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine offered a copy of their most recent issue to anyone willing to blog about it, and, after taking a look at the issue's table of contents, I happily took them up on their offer. With stories by Geoff Ryman, Stephen King, M. Rickert, Robert Reed and several others, this seemed like a not-to-be-missed entry in the magazine's history, and I was looking forward to writing an exuberant piece about some top-notch short fiction. Sadly, the further I got into the October/November issue, the less I found to be excited about. The big names have turned up, to be sure, but only one of them has delivered on the level I'd expected.

Last time I wrote about a F&SF giveaway issue, I complained about the magazine's nonfiction content, and specifically its datedness. What was the point, I asked, of reviewing Ian McDonald's River of Gods months after it had been nominated for the Hugo as if the magazine's readers had never heard of it? It was pointed out to me, however, that there is a contingent of subscribers who are not online, and for whom F&SF is their only source of genre criticism. These people might very well have been hearing about River of Gods for the first time, as it had only recently been published in the US.

Fair enough, though for the sake of these readers I wish the magazine's book reviews were a little more interesting and thoughtful, but what is to be made of Lucius Shepard's film column? In an issue sent out in August, to be sold in bookstores in the fall, Shepard turns his focus to the summer phenomenon of comic book films, and decides to write about... Iron Man, which he derides for being silly and incoherent. I realize that there are probably lead time issues here that I'm not privy to, but you can't talk about comic book films at the end of the summer of 2008 without talking about The Dark Knight--a fact which is powerfully brought home by Shepard's numerous unfavorable comparisons between Iron Man and The Dark Knight's prequel, Batman Begins. Shepard has nothing to say about Iron Man that hasn't been said countless times already, including in many venues which even offline F&SF readers will have been likely to see, and in addition his review is mean-spirited, trotting out a fanboy caricature who lobs low-ball arguments--you don't get it man, you're out of touch!--about Iron Man's merits for Shepard to knock aside, so that even I, who didn't think much of the film, found myself wishing him off my side. Given F&SF's long lead time I simply don't understand why the magazine bothers to write about current films, especially if its reviewer has so little to add to the discussion.

Still, nonfiction isn't the reason for F&SF's existence, and once I was done puzzling over Shepard's movie column I happily turned to the stories in the October/November issue, only to be puzzled once again. A few of the stories here are exercises in tone, effective but ephemeral. Carol Emshwiller's "Whoever" is narrated by a woman who wakes up with no memory, and spins a story to explain her circumstances, venturing further and further into the realm of the fantastic as she does so. Steven Utley's "Sleepless Years" is narrated by a suicide who is being used as a test subject in experiments in reanimation. Terry Bisson's "Private Eye" is an erotic piece extrapolating from the webcam phenomenon to a world in which one can, for a fee, see through another person's eyes. All are well-written and successfully put us in their characters' heads, but that's really all they amount to. Less impressive are the two humorous pieces in the magazine, Albert E. Cowdrey's "Inside Story" and Scott Bradfield's "Dazzle Joins the Scriptwriter's Guild" (a third piece, a short-short by Laurel Winter titled "Going Back in Time," is probably intended as humorous but doesn't really come close). Both rely on stereotypes and clichés for their humor--the soullessness of the Hollywood filmmaking apparatus in Bradfield's story, the funny accents and love of greasy food of lower-middle and working class New Orleans residents in Cowdrey's--but neither crackles on the page. Cowdrey, at least, is trying to do something more than just entertain, as the supernatural occurrences in his story take place among FEMA trailers and in dilapidated and abandoned neighborhoods still patrolled by the National Guard, but he tells us nothing that we don't already know.

Michael Swanwick and Tim Sullivan are almost unique in the issue for trying to tell actual stories rather than striking a single emotional tone, the former with the short story "The Scarecrow's Boy" and the latter with the novelette "Planetesimal Dawn." Sullivan's story is good old fashioned SF, taking place in a mining colony on an asteroid, and paying great attention to the realities of survival in space. The story kicks off when a scientist and security officer on routine patrol become stranded when their vehicle malfunctions, and have to scramble to avoid the boiling dawn, then complicates when the two fall through a temporal anomaly. I feel a little guilty saying this, since stories of this ilk are, allegedly, not only the meat and potatoes of science fiction its bricks and mortar, the kind of hardcore, scientifically oriented stories that are at the foundation of the genre, but "Planetesimal Dawn" is boring. The characters are crudely drawn--the defeated scientist, the plucky security officer--and Sullivan's focus on mechanics (of the temporal anomaly, of the alien mining facility the characters find once they traverse it, of the alien spacecraft one of them visits) drowns out any urgency or sense of wonder his story might have elicited. It comes off like a mission report rather than a story. Swanwick's story, in which obsolete robot servers put out to pasture rally to save the life of a lost child, might have gone to the other extreme, and been slathered in sentiment, but, perhaps because it's such a short piece and perhaps because the title character is enjoyably down to Earth, he pulls it off, and even makes us care for his characters, who are trying to make moral decisions within the imposed framework of their programming.

I was interested in the October/November issue of F&SF, however, because of four names--King, Reed, Rickert and Ryman. The first is something of a surprise on a F&SF cover. If you look at the publication credits in King's upcoming short story collection, you'll find high-paying, prestigious mainstream markets like The New Yorker and The Paris Review. According to the introduction to King's story, "The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates," he was inspired to submit to the magazine after reading it regularly as part of his duties as guest editor of Best American Short Stories 2007 and being impressed with its content, but were I feeling uncharitable I might wonder if he didn't realize that he had a throwaway piece on his hands which Esquire wouldn't bother with. "Bargain Rates" is, as its introduction calls it, a Twilight Zone piece--something weird happens, the end. It's not bad, but not nearly as good as King's short stories can be (and in recent years I've grown more and more convinced that he is at his best in the short form), and in its language in particular feels almost lazy--as if someone were imitating King's folksy, conversational style and falling a little short of the real thing.

More disappointing is M. Rickert's "Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter's Personal Account," but then I expect a great deal from Rickert, who has a knack for combining present day events with SFnal speculation and a possibly unhealthy dollop of cynicism about human nature. She does all that here, imagining a world in which abortion has been made retroactively punishable by death, and in which women are rounded up by the hundreds and thousands to pay for abortions performed years or even decades ago. As the title indicates, the story is narrated by the daughter of one of these condemned women, who has fled rather than face her punishment, to her family's everlasting shame. It's an effective piece, as, indeed, how could it help being? Mass executions! Gross miscarriages of justice! Institutionalized misogyny! Young women brainwashed into a Handmaid's Tale-esque attitude of seeing themselves as nothing but walking wombs! It is also, however, shamelessly manipulative and unsubtle, a piece aimed only at people who agree with its politics, and one which encourages them to sneer rather than think.

Robert Reed has been churning out short stories at the rate of several per year for some time now (which leads me to wonder whether it isn't time for a single-author collection). He's a consistent presence on Hugo and Nebula shortlists, and justifiably so--his novella "A Billion Eves" was one of my favorite short stories last year--but with the sheer bulk of material he produces it stands to reason that there are also plenty of also-rans in the mix. The novelette "Visionaries" is, sadly, one of these. It's also an oddly metafictional piece, narrate by a science fiction author who occasionally produces pieces which don't even seem to be properly stories, but glimpses into the life of a wholly unremarkable man who happens to live several decades in the future. In short order, the writer is contacted by a shadowy group within the SFWA, who pay top dollar for what they believe to be a genuine glimpse of the future. "Visionaries" touches on many of the hot-button topics that regularly crop up in the SF blogosphere--the declining fortunes of SF magazines, the internal politics of the SFWA, associate members of that organization with hardly any publishing credits to their name who nevertheless turn up at every official gathering, resentment of new writers and their media savvy, what may very well be a dig at free online fiction, and, of course, the capacity of science fiction to actually predict the future. Though there is a more accessible sub-plot that runs through the story, in which the narrator tries to affect the life of one of the people he glimpses in his visions, it is overpowered by what feels like a succession of inside jokes with very little substance. That said, I think I'm going to have to give "Visionaries" a little more thought, because I can't help but suspect that it does have a larger point that I'm missing.

Geoff Ryman is less prolific than Robert Reed but a great deal more dependable--I don't think I've ever read a poor or uninteresting piece of short fiction by him. His novelette "Days of Wonder" is no exception, an utterly original take on the post-apocalyptic, post-human future familiar from so many other stories. The narrator is a horse, and yet not a horse--a genetically engineered creature whose species was created just prior to humanity's destruction along with many other altered animals, who possess sentience but are also ruled by their biological nature, at least until the narrator's throwback friend, Leveza, starts questioning the natural order of things--why should the old and sick be sacrificed to predators on migration? Why can't truce be made with those predators? Why can't technology be used to prevent the need for migration at all? The result feels at first like a Tiptree-esque story about intelligence and free will at war with, and ultimately overpowered by, biological determinism, but this is Geoff Ryman, and if there's anything more predictable than that his stories will be good it is that they'll have a happy ending. Fortunately, the ending of "Days of Wonder" feels earned, not least by the clever SFnal mechanism driving the story and its gradual revelation, which are both far too much fun for me to spoil here, but also by Ryman's refusal to draw the kind of stark division between human and animal nature that Tiptree so often did. When Leveza is cast out of the group, animal instinct is mingled with human emotion, and with the all too human tendency to enforce conformity and, when pushed too far, to cast out anyone different or rebellious. "Days of Wonder" ends up asking a lot of questions about both human and animal behavior, pointing out that the two are a great deal more similar than we'd like to think while still holding out the possibility of rising above our worst impulses--whether biological or emotional.

Fantasy & Science Fiction's October/November issue is worth reading for Ryman's story, though you'd probably get as much out of it if you skipped the rest of the issue and just read this one piece. It's clear that the issue was intended to draw in new readers and potential subscribers--it marks the beginning of F&SF's 60th anniversary celebration, and clearly the big guns were trotted out just for this purpose. It's a shame, therefore, that the authors in question seem to have, one by one, failed to live up to the promise of their names and bibliographies.

10 comments:

Jonathan M said...

Excellent work as always Abigail.

I also agree with your comments about the non-fiction content of F&SF. The response to their response should have been "everybody was talking about River of Gods months before it was shortlisted for the Hugos... why not review it then?"

Interzone, by contrast, is worth the subscription money for the non-fiction content alone.

Niall said...

and one which encourages them to sneer rather than think.

Purely because of the extremeness of the scenario, or for some other reason?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

That's a big part of it, yes, but there's also the fact that the narrator is so clearly brainwashed. She's someone we can pity, but not sympathize with, because her reactions are so obviously wrong and twisted. Rather than putting us in her head and inviting us to feel her pain (and there is real pain there - this is a child who has lost her mother and been raised to believe that that mother is a horrible person), the narrative stands apart from her and regards her - or rather, what's been done to her - with disgust. Which, clearly, is an appropriate reaction, but as I said the result is a story that only reaffirms the reader's preexisting opinions.

Niall said...

Hmm. I think I disagree with that, but I'm going to have to reread the story to articulate why.

Christopher Barzak said...

"...the result is a story that only reaffirms the reader's preexisting opinions."

That's if you happen to hold those opinions, though. Why do you feel all readers already hold this opinion? Aren't you assuming that everyone who reads this will readily agree with Rickert's position? If so, that's a very generous worldview you have there.

John Joseph Adams said...

You said "According to the introduction to King's story, "The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates," he was inspired to submit to the magazine after reading it regularly as part of his duties as guest editor of Best American Short Stories 2007 and being impressed with its content..."

Um, not quite. You might want to read that intro again because that's not what it says at all, and to be surprised to see King's name on the cover of the magazine is kind of silly thing to say considering F&SF has published quite a few Stephen King stories over the years, and in fact have published at least two special Stephen King issues.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Christopher:

Well, I'd certainly like to think that an overwhelming majority of people reading the story are opposed to mass, public executions of anyone who's ever had an abortion. You're right, however, that some people reading the story may be opposed to abortion rights, and though I obviously can't claim to speak for them, it's hard for me to imagine a person who holds that opinion managing to even make it through this story. I don't see that they have anywhere to latch onto unless they're willing to be preached at. If pro-choice readers are being invited to sneer, it seems to me that anti-choice ones are being invited to be sneered at.

John:

I don't have the magazine in front of me, but I do think the introduction says something to that effect - I'll try to post the exact quote this evening. However, I didn't mean to imply that King had never published in F&SF but that he hasn't done so in quite some time - hence my example of his most recent short story collection. In his previous collection, Everything's Eventual, only one piece, the title story, was published in F&SF, and that was in 1997, though there may be uncollected stories between the two collections that I'm not aware of.

Eric said...

Point-for-point, I couldn't agree more. I'm puzzled by the eternal pass that F&SF seems to get in the sf community -- while they publish stellar material now and then (Bacigalupi, Chiang), they've made a habit of taking any underwhelming work that a big name throws their way. I still sort of reluctantly subscribe, but it's definitely the most uneven of my subscriptions.

Christopher Barzak said...

Abigail,

I think I see where you are coming from at this point. I think we are very different sorts of readers, as I don't feel invited to sneer at things in fiction, nor feel that in this case M. Rickert is inviting anyone to sneer. And I think that fiction can be representational, rather than always gauged as instructive or persuasive, which I think is where you're coming from. Seen from a purely representational point of view, I find the Rickert story to be a moving portrait of contemporary attitudes towards abortion in the U.S. during the culture wars of the past decade, and how such culture wars affect the younger generations as trends of belief and values are pulled in particular directions. And I think it's an astonishingly emotionally honest portrait of what it looks like to be on the inside of that kind of situation.

I understand where you're coming from, but I think in this case, you're asking the wrong questions of this particular story.

Jim Henry said...

::I still sort of reluctantly subscribe, but it's definitely the most uneven of my subscriptions.

Haven't read this particular issue yet (just finished the May issue and have five others on the queue, not to mention a similar number of Asimov's and one each of Electric Velocipede and LCRW), but I would say F&SF is the most consistent in quality of the magazines I've been subscribing to (not counting LCRW which I just started subscribing to and haven't read yet). Asimov's publishes more excellent, Hugo-quality stuff, but also more stories that are too dull or cliched to finish.

I agree that most of the movie reviews in F&SF are pointless; they should stick to reviewing art films that we might have not heard of yet rather than major Hollywood movies that we've almost certainly seen and formed our own opinion of, or at least seen several other reviews of, months before the issue came out.

Robert Reed has had two collections, The Dragons of Springplace and The Cuckoo's Boys; the latter was pretty recent, but you could fill two or three more volumes the same size with the excellent Reed stories that were left out of those two.

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