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Editor's Choice: Short Fiction Reviews
by David A. Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has been reading science fiction and fantasy for forty years. For the past four years he has edited TANGENT: The Only Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Fiction Review Magazine. It was runner-up for the 1997 Hugo Award. The intent of this column is to present reviews of selected short fiction that strike Dave's interest as his reading for Tangent continues. If you would like to read more short fiction reviews, try Tangent as it reviews every original story in all American, Canadian, British, and Australian professional SF & F magazines (as well as many others).

For more of David's opinions, we've put together a table of contents for other Editor's Choice columns.

Magazines
For information on the contents of an issue or for subscription details, you can try the following sites:
Asimov's Science Fiction
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
On Spec
Cemetery Dance
Interzone
OMNI
Talebones
Tomorrow SF
Analog, February 1998
Analog Science Fiction and Fact, February 1998
"Olympus Mons!" Bud Sparhawk
"The Orchard" Paul Levinson
"Roll Over Vivaldi" Stephen L. Burns
"What's It Like?" Jerry Oltion
"Mortal Instruments" Shane Tourtellotte
"The Tale of the Cat" Poul Anderson
Taken as a whole the February 1998 issue of Analog is rather unremarkable. On closer inspection, however, it does offer its share of divertissements. For those who go for no frills action/adventure, Bud Sparhawk offers a fast-paced "bike" race from the top of the largest volcano in the solar system, Mars' Olympus Mons, to the finish line some two days later, well onto the planet's surface. The story centers around Taylor Blacker and his specially engineered racing vehicle, and the jinxed navigator he hires to guide him over the treacherous and grueling terrain. Sparhawk puts his characters through their expected paces as we follow them down the mountain, and along the way we learn some nice details of the Martian landscape. As Blacker and his female navigator overcome adversity after adversity, they each find an inner strength that serves them well. We've seen this basic story before, but Sparhawk does it well. Those who like this kind of seat-of-the-pants derring-do would do well to seek out Sparhawk's previous pair of stories set on Jupiter, "Primrose and Thorn" (Analog, May 1996) and its sequel "Primrose Rescue" (Analog, May 1997). In these we are treated to giant ships sailing high amidst the gaseous Jovian winds vying to win the Great Jupiter Race. "Primrose and Thorn" was the winner of the 1996 AnLab Poll in the novella category, and is currently on the 1997 Nebula Award preliminary ballot.

Shane Tourtellotte tells the morality tale of a competent musician who desires more than anything to become what he is destined never to be: great, and the desperate lengths to which he will go to reach his goal. He seeks an experimental bio-medical enhancement giving him perfect pitch, which sets him above all others and momentarily gives him all he could desire: fame, fortune, and respect. But there is a price to pay when his secret is revealed and the playing field is once again leveled, leaving him once more merely competent. The lesson here is an old one, but one worth the retelling. "Mortal Instruments" is aptly titled.

In the time-honored tradition of the ancient bards, who improvised their epic tales in great halls in front of royalty, Poul Anderson tells "The Tale of the Cat." Set in an off-Earth future time during a layover on a distant world, two such tale spinners alternately tell the story of the young Ronan, of how his desire to leave his home world and clever schemes won him a place aboard a starship. Though mildly interesting and well enough told, it reads like a snippet of a larger work.

For a change of pace, Stephen L. Burns lightens the mood with his humorous "Roll Over Vivaldi." Convicts form the string trio known as Triaxion. They gain release points from their incarceration by playing gigs on planets at the whim of the authorities. One such engagement turns ugly and they must improvise at the last moment to save their very lives. Just what form of music soothes the savage breasts of alien beasts will put a gleam into the eyes of aging hippies who remember what good music used to be like.

Jerry Oltion's "What's It Like?" starts off with a bang with this opening line: "When a man switches to a woman's body, the first thing he does is feel his breasts." The first half of this short story cleverly explores the psycho-sexual ramifications from both the male and female perspective, to nice effect. But the latter portion then makes a right turn in order to focus on one of the aging, depressed scientists overseeing this breakthrough experiment, and what she decides in order to escape from the prison her life has become. You see, the "transfer machine" as it's simply called, also enables humans to switch their minds into the bodies of animals, and vice versa. Oltion wisely decides that the rubber science is hardly worth a hand wave, as the story is about the effects of the "transfer machine," and not its plausibility, thus allowing him to explore one woman's wish to exit a world where true feeling is a thing of the past for her, to a carefree existence where unfettered rapture is everything. The creature with which she chooses to switch, with no hope of reversal it must be noted, is an obvious metaphor for freedom, though admittedly an apropos one. Oltion has attempted to rework a standard trope with a promising beginning, pushing all of the correct emotional buttons in order to gain the reader's sympathies, but chooses to finish it with a cliché'd metaphor. "What's It Like?" is full of promise unfulfilled. Nothing really wrong with it, but its final resonance is... unremarkable.

If there is a story that perhaps stands above the average in this issue, this novelette would get a thumbs up as my...

Editor's Choice:
"The Orchard" by Paul Levinson
Paul Levinson adds a new wrinkle to the ages old search for intelligent life in the universe in "The Orchard." It is now the 22nd century and through the discovery of "snake holes" -- an advanced system of wormholes -- Mankind has discovered that the universe is teeming with all sorts of life -- though none approaching what we know as intelligent. Until, that is, from the death of a member of an expeditionary team on an unnamed world, a puzzle presents itself. A biological mystery of a nature so finely masked that to fail to solve it might be to deny ourselves the knowledge that we are not alone. Through deduction, insight, and perseverance, Levinson shows us that the subtlest remnants of a civilization might be its most revealing legacy. A fine bit of speculation.

Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 1998
Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 1998
"Home Time" Ian R. MacLeod
"Graft" Christine Beckert
"The Old Curiosity Shop" James P. Blaylock
"This Side of Independence" Rob Chilson
"Accelerated Grimace" Rebecca Ore
"The Boy Who Lost An Hour, The Girl Who Lost Her Life" Ian Watson
Editor's Choice:
"Graft" by Christine Beckert
Editor's Choice:
"Home Time" by Ian R. MacLeod
Imagine, if you will, that you have just awakened to learn that over sixty percent of your skin has been burned beyond repair following a horrible traffic accident. You find yourself floating gently in an isolation box in the burn ward of a hospital, packed in a special anti-trauma gel. Your choices are simple: you can live thus for three months while waiting for self-grafts of your skin to grow; or you can leave the hospital in a couple of weeks, wrapped in an entirely new cocoon of skin, fresh, taut, and vibrant -- from a paid donor.

After careful consideration, you choose the latter, realizing full well that the donor has chosen to trade places with you, spending your three months in hospital waiting for self-grafts of your charred skin to regenerate for her. Christine Beckert handles this grisly scenario in just enough visual detail to make this science fiction story feel like a true horror story. But Beckert gives us one better. She quickly involves us in the real story, which concerns the emotional and psychological effects on the lives of not only patient and donor, but their friends and lovers as well. Beckert captures the unforeseen consequences superbly in this well realized sleeper.

I'll take this quality level of storytelling with its subdued atmosphere of latent horror -- which pervades the very essence of all else that takes place in the story -- to the cheap, derivative, uninspired splatterpunk tripe that passes for horror in many of the "straight" horror magazines any day. My compliments to Christine Beckert.

And for those keeping score on such matters, I have it on the highest authority that this story was purchased by F&SF's former editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, nearly two years ago.

Ian R. MacLeod is one of science fiction's newest, and brightest talents. He brings a freshness and maturity to his writing that many are just now beginning to appreciate. "Home Time" only serves to solidify this growing reputation.

Time travelers just after the turn of the 20th century are on the trail of the British Antarctic Expedition under the command of Robert Falcon Scott. It is a doomed expedition, with at least one member never found. It is this unfortunate victim that they have traveled back in time to claim, his appropriation of no consequence to the time stream. But the inevitable error does occur and the time stream must now account for the difference. How this is accomplished dovetails brilliantly with the human story of one of the time travelers -- a story of love and despair MacLeod has been patiently weaving alternately with the surface story -- and which provides for one of the most satisfying resolutions to a time travel piece I've read in a good long time. "Home Time" remains true to the internal physics of the time travel game the author has setup, as well as to the emotional conflict of the lead character which he has so deftly bared for the reader. The strange and unforgiving loops of time and the human soul are both brought full circle, and leave the reader subconsciously aware of the symmetry inherent in this masterfully rendered tale.

For those wishing to read more of Mr. MacLeod's short work, Arkham House published his first short story collection early in 1997. Voyages by Starlight (with an introduction by Michael Swanwick) can be purchased in hardcover by writing to Arkham House Publishers, Inc., Sauk City, WI 53583. Oddly enough, no price was given on the book, but it is well worth seeking out.

Copyright © 1998 by David A. Truesdale


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