Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction - July 2008

This is not the first issue of F&SF that I have read, nor will it be the last. I'm an on-and-off-again subscriber who often picks up a stray issue when my subscription lapses. Like any magazine, I rarely find that all the stories chosen speak to me. This goes in waves where sometimes more do, and I subscribe, and sometimes less do, and I wander away. I've been in the wander away (though I have a stack of singles to prove I didn't wander far) mode for a bit now.

The July issue is really making me rethink that position. If you last all the way to the end of this post, there's a relevant treat from the F&S F folks, who hope that my analysis will arouse your interest as well.

It's been said that Gordon Van Gelder prefers idea stories, and that trend is definitely reflected in the stories offered between these covers. This issue contains a broad range of topics: cloning in The Roberts, the search for an ultimate answer in Fullbrim's Finding, an interesting answer to precocious children in Enfant Terrible, the changing of the guard in The Dinosaur Train, the infinite library in Reader's Guide, and moral standing in the military in Poison Victory.

Of all of the titles, only "Poison Victory" didn't bring the story immediately to mind, and that's only a title issue in my opinion and not a reflection on the story at all. A good 10 days passed between when I finished reading the magazine and wrote up this review, time in which I've read a number of other stories, published and not, to cloud my memory. That all but one of the stories is memorable based on title alone and the one that wasn't is memorable after a quick glance at the first page (the equivalent of "do you remember the story in which...") supports my belief in how strong this issue is.

I did not dislike a single one of the fiction offerings, a rarity in short story collections. And though I read for the stories, I also found the columns interesting, partially in how they supported the general idea focus. One column, for example, explored the "new weird" in a way so true to the topic that my head spun afterwards, while another looked at the portrayal and expectations behind the superhero designation.

The issue as a whole was a thinking issue, as is the focus of F&SF in general, but I've rarely seen it upheld quite so thoroughly. Or quite so well.

The stories ranged from science fiction to magical realism to alternate history. I didn't feel fantasy was represented much in this issue, though The Dinosaur Train is possibly classified as borderline fantasy depending on how you look at it. I think, however, that none of the stories "felt" like fantasy, which is of course a completely subjective presentation, but one that I'll have to stand by as I can't give a better explanation.

It's hard to say which is my favorite story because they all appeal in different ways. In fact, I cannot. My least favorite was Poison Victory, though not because of the title, but that's a "least" in the sense of an 8 on a scale of 0-10 being least. It's so rare that every story in a magazine has something to offer me that I find it hard to articulate. Having failed to come up with a ranking, I'll offer some description of the stories so you can judge for yourself, trying to avoid spoilers as much as possible beyond general statements. Also, the order is that of the table of contents and has no significance beyond that fact. It's not even the order in which the stories appear in the magazine.

The Roberts is the novella offered. Michael Blumlein addresses the issue of dating and the time one must commit to a successful relationship through the odd window of cloning. And no, it's not as weird as it sounds. To be honest, it takes a little time for the story to move beyond a sort of male perspective on Sex in the City. This isn't a reach out and grab you story, but neither does it fail to catch the reader. It's more the type that piques the interest and slowly pulls the reader in until you're caught.

A minor segue, but I was talking with a neighbor about her husband's book that featured clones. This is of little significance except that two stories (one on my edit pile that I wrote a while back and never polished) and The Roberts came immediately to mind. The significance here is the 10 day that lapsed between finishing the magazine and that conversation. For the story to sit in my brain crystal clear despite editing, critiquing, going to a convention, and half a dozen other things that interfered, is unusual. And yet I was able to recount specifics in this conversation as though I'd just reached "the end," or had the magazine in front of me, which I didn't.

I wouldn't have expected this to be a story that appealed, but I'm glad I stuck with it and read all the way through because it raises some interesting questions and offers Okay, maybe the solutions aren't relevant to our lives. The questions, however, resonate with me, and I'd be surprised if they didn't touch most readers on some level.

Fullbrim's Finding by Matthew Hughes is an odd cross between a philosophical story and a hard-boiled detective one. I wasn't really sure what to make of this at the beginning, and still am not sure after I came to the end. That isn't to say it wasn't compelling in its very contradiction. The result is somewhat of a shaggy dog tale, and yet it completely isn't. It plays on the concept of obsession, and offers an answer to the quest for meaning that makes just a little too much sense, and yet the importance is the way of it and the exploration of the various personalities involved much more than the actuality of the plot. This is not the story I was thinking of when I mentioned magical realism above, but now faced with encapsulating Fullbrim's Finding in some pithy summary, I wonder if it's an example of magical realism in an science fictional rather than modern context. Judging from a recent definition I read, this story clearly falls into the category of interstitial. It's almost a mood piece and yet offers too much sense to be limited by that definition either. It is definitely a story that would not appeal to me all the time, but which filled a hole in my reading pile nicely when I came upon it.

Poison Victory by Albert E. Cowdrey is the one I mentioned above as the story that connected with me the least. This is not because it is alternate history, nor even because it's an alternate look at World War II, exploring what the world would look like if Hitler won. I am actually an avid reader of alternate history, and though Hitler stories are common, I fully admit this is a unique take on it. I guess the weakness that made me weigh it more lightly was simply that a lot happened which served little purpose beyond setting the scene. It involved the main character, but that involvement was conveyed at one step distant. This is, in part, because the story is written in diary format, an interesting approach, and largely a successful one. There is no question that both the events bringing the main character to the point of writing a treasonous journal and the actions he then takes come through clearly. Nor does the format limit what the reader sees as the main character is quite dedicated in his setting down of both current and past events. The story builds, piece upon piece, until the choices are limited to capitulation or revolt. He must choose whether to lay his ghosts to rest, or embrace what he has become and deny his moral failure.

Oddly, it's only now, in analyzing my thoughts about the story that the title's meaning comes clear. I withdraw my earlier statement. It's the perfect title, as I probably noticed at the moment of completing the read. I guess it's only that it didn't toss me back into the story 10 days later that made me doubt it. But a weakness of distance and titling is still minor when you're reading the actual text and reliving these moments with the main character. Whatever his lack of reaction to some matters, it's hard not to react for him. The reader has the facts of the case, and can see the burden he bears clearly.

Reader's Guide by Lisa Goldstein is the novelette I was referring to when I mentioned magical realism. In the tradition of Garcia Marquez, I believe, though Google is failing me at the moment, this story brings the reader to an infinite library filled with every book not just written, but imagined. It's the catalog of ideas awaiting nurturing to bring them to life. Through the style of a reader's guide, and the ruminations of a Shelver, one who is responsible for organizing these ideas, we get to see not just the library but the sometimes pathetic writers who roam its shelves in the hopes of uncovering the perfect, unique idea that would bring their writing to its pinnacle. In this odd manner, we witness the transformation of a Shelver as he/she gives up smug superiority in favor of a new purpose.

On a side note, the stories break down by point of view as follows: one straight first person, the detective styled one; two narrative first person, though one is through the reader's guide and the other a diary; two third person, the novella and The Dinosaur Train; and one actual second person. A rather broad range that indicates POV is not a defining characteristic for F&SF's choices. The reader may find anything within these covers.

Enfant Terrible by Scott Dalrymple is a second person story where you as the reader, despite being the protagonist, come to understand a series of oddities gradually. It is a trick in that information that should be known is hidden, and the assumptions you're led to make are red herrings, but it doesn't feel like a cheat. I'm highly sensitive to the author withholding information for the sole purpose of creating false suspense. That's not the case here. Rather, it's second person omniscient in the sense that you experience only what is in front of the character and make your own judgments about the material. Nothing is revealed, but neither is it hidden. The only way to know is to have access to the main character's thoughts, and that information isn't available. It makes the story into somewhat of a mood piece, and the ending left me a mite bit uncomfortable, but in a good way. Like some of the others, this story is hard to classify, and even harder to summarize without upsetting the balance of the information reveal. I'm just going to say it's worth the ride should you choose to take it.

The Dinosaur Train by James L. Cambias closes the magazine at least as far as stories are concerned. This is an appropriate end point because Cambias offers us a story about the moment of change, when old traditions are fading and new ones have to take their place, where the will and the way are not always clear, or free of obstacles. Stubborn human nature combined with a lifetime of experiences that taught hard lessons meets willingness and a pure heart that is still open to change and taking chances. This story is not a grand statement; it doesn't offer to change the world, save humanity from itself, or save the universe from humanity. It's a little story with a big heart, one young man having to face that his own choices will lead him away from what he's always wanted, and yet at the same time, those choices may be the only way to preserve what he longs for. As much as Fullbrim's Finding is about how obsessions define people, The Dinosaur Train offers the same look at people but through the filter of loyalty, loyalty to family, to tradition, and to the ideal even when it sets a person against those who should have first claim on allegiance. What can I say? I enjoyed the push-pull represented here. It touched my heart as well as my head.

Which brings me to the end of the magazine, and the urge to take advantage of the offer given to all who read this review (though for a limited time only). I hope my thoughts entertain and give some sense of what the July issue, and the general editorial focus of F&SF, can offer. They've got an interesting line-up planned, and if Gordon Van Gelder keeps purchasing stories like these, it'll be an enjoyable one. The magazine has been around for 59 years now. That says something, especially in this market.

Because I reviewed this issue for them, an obvious delight :), F&SF is offering me, and extending the offer to anyone who reads this review, a special discount on a 1- or 2-year magazine subscription. You can pay by either credit card or PayPal, and do a gift subscription at the same rate if you pay by PayPal. The offer is only available through this link:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sharpe's Battle by Bernard Cornwell

(Acquired: bookstore)

I read my first Bernard Cornwell as part of an Advanced Reader program (or at least the first I remember reading) and enjoyed how he brought me into the action. I'd been looking for Nicholas and Alexandra on my shelf this time, in the mood for some historical fiction, but when I couldn't find it, I noticed Sharpe's Battle. I do not regret the substitution at all. This novel surprised me in many ways because it is much more mature than the first one I read, The Last Kingdom, in both language and horrific detail, but still shows all that captivated me before. Sharpe is a soldier in the British Army in 1811 (at least for this book), and while reading, you can feel the grit beneath his boots and the dry gunpowder in his mouth from biting off the cartridges. Cornwell does not pull punches or in any way ""prettify"" war. People die, and die brutally, horrible things happen, people you come to admire are threatened and killed, while people you despise seem sure to walk away clean. There's tactics, strategy, politics, diplomacy, all mushed in together to form a cohesive, gritty whole that makes it a hard book to put down.

From the writer's perspective, there are two things Cornwell does exceptionally well: omniscient (which has been the subject of much discussion recently), and recap of the series. I hadn't been aware that I choose a late-stage book in the series since I picked it up on author name alone, but I'm not one who has to read things in order to enjoy them. On the other hand, the recap of previous events was subtle, touching only on the highlights, and served as a way to give Sharpe a well-rounded background. These events made him the person he was, and whether they'd been covered in detail in a previous book or not was irrelevant. Even better, since no detail beyond the fact was offered, I'm sure the original books that covered those moments will be just as wonderful.

On the omniscient, this is true omniscient, none of the "camera-view" people have started to call omniscient despite the oxymoron in that designation. The POV goes from up close and personal including internal contemplation, to hanging overhead as one army attempts to decimate another. He even managed to pull off a trick that would have driven me nuts in another book, which is he hid a crucial bit of information by temporarily sliding to someone else's close view, someone who could see, but not hear, the main character and another talking. Part of the reason it worked though is that he held the reader in suspense for a very short time. Within the next few pages, we had the answer to that odd confrontation.

Ultimately, reader or writer, I'd recommend Bernard Cornwell as a way to touch history and wallow in the enjoyment of a skilled author.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Magic Burns by Ilona Andrews

(Acquired: bookstore)

Ilona Andrews did not disappoint with her second book, Magic Burns. Kate Daniels continues to be a compelling character, and the story is fast-paced, action-filled, and full of fun things to quote to my family and pique their interest. This book is actually one I had a hand in, though whether she took any of my suggestions I don't know seeing as I don't even remember what they were ;). Still, it's fascinating to read the final version and recognize some of the big changes she's made. Even more so, it's wonderful to finally get to read the end :), a downside of critting when the whole novel doesn't make it to the crit site.

Like Magic Bites, Magic Burns is set up as a mystery in framework, but most of the information we need to figure things out doesn't come into play until the character discovers it. That could be considered a weakness, but it hardly detracts from the fun read , and I'm a stickler for that sort of thing. There is one well-seeded item that I can't describe without spoilers, but I did enjoy having figured out one bit before the character, though Kate ran a close second. I did feel the reason for another aspect of the book ended up on the cutting room floor, but it was not a key element, and I can posit a reasonable enough explanation as much as I'd prefer a provided one, so this little hiccup didn't spoil my enjoyment.

There is no question about whether I'll be buying the next one in this series, or whatever else she decides to write. The only real question is when the next comes out :).