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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
Analog Science Fiction and Fact
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
On Spec
Cemetery Dance
Interzone
OMNI
Talebones
Tomorrow SF
Current Cover
Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 1998
"White Magic" Albert E. Cowdrey
"The Mercy Gate" Mark J. McGarry
"Remember Caesar" Ben Bova
"Gentle Horses" Cynthia Seelhammer
"Reflection and Insight" John Morressy
"The Last of the Glass Menageries" Stefano Donati
"Imprints" Marina Fitch
You've all heard the sports clichés that "It's a game of inches," or "The margin between making the playoffs and sitting home over the holidays is a single play?" Such would seem to be the case with several stories in this otherwise fine issue of F&SF.

"Gentle Horses" intrigues from the start, with genetically enhanced show horses and how they are bred to be "one" with their riders, but then suffers from a weakly resolved ending. Fresh concept, reasonably well explored for the short length, but needing a stronger, more defined ending to be totally effective. A nice effort, nonetheless.

"The Last of the Glass Menageries" also sports an involving premise. Postulating an incurable virus that makes having intercourse a death sentence, it is then regrettably marred by several unexplained or unexamined logical inconsistencies. It's too bad, too, because this serious attempt to reprise the late Cyril Kornbluth's classic "The Marching Morons" is an otherwise worthwhile effort. I praised another Donati story in my mid-March column, his "Nor All Thy Tears" from the Winter 1998 Talebones. I let him off the hook on this one for several hidden internal inconsistencies because I felt what he was trying to do -- his message -- was otherwise well done. But in lieu of the illogic again present in this story I shan't be so twice forgiving. I give Donati praise for his earnest, mature attempts to tackle serious issues (which fewer writers are attempting anymore, and this is to his credit), but I must fault him for a repeated careless lack of inner verisimilitude. In my book, he's missed by inches having a pair of merely published stories being considered very good ones.

Marina Fitch's heart is in the right place in her "Imprints," but the story suffers for several reasons. It begins with a kind, elderly woman taken in as a boarder in a single parent family's backyard cottage. She is blind, which adds to her initial mysteriousness. She collects rubber stamps of all sorts, which, when stamped on paper and colored in, form pictures which, when placed in a special "tray," become real. She quickly becomes friends with the single mother and her seven year-old daughter. They reside in suburbia. Nice, upper-middle class digs. The mother and daughter have a perfectly wonderful relationship, aside from the obvious fact that the daughter has no stable father figure. She is somewhat precocious and quirky, but an intelligent little lass, nevertheless. But eventually, through the pictures that the daughter draws via her selection of rubber stamps, we are led to believe that her life is in some vast subterranean turmoil. And what is so terrible between mother and daughter that warrants our emotional engagement in the story, our erstwhile sympathy? The girl desperately wants a dog, and she's worried her mother might choose the wrong boyfriend who in turn would be her new father. Oh my goodness, what earth-shattering trauma! How can life possibly continue without a golden retriever and the perfect father?

Aside from this -- and the fact that the rubber stamp magic "just happens" (If this is intended as "magic realism" or "urban fantasy" then it's missing an elusive protocol or two for the reader) -- I found the mother and daughter's non-reaction to the out-of-the-blue intrusion of this astounding brand of magic inane. They blithely accept the fact that a strange woman with magical rubber stamps can actually alter their reality without even so much as an "Oh, my goodness!" or a "What's going on here?" My suspensional wire of disbelief was stretched hummingly taut to begin with, but when no one in the story even raises so much as an eyebrow at this, it snapped completely. Like I say, Ms. Fitch's heart is in the right place, and the story reads rather sweetly if you don't examine it too closely, but... never mind. At least little Andrea got her damn dog, will lead a normal little girl life and won't end up the serial butcher she would have become without it.

This episode of "Hazel Knows Best" (those of you old enough will remember the pap, but beloved, TV series' "Hazel" and "Father Knows Best") will no doubt do good in the overnight ratings. After all, it's another PC dysfunctional/broken family story. But I, for one, am sick to death of stories with (take your pick) drunken or abusive parents, or split, single parent, or otherwise incomplete/dysfunctional families. I must have read literally hundreds in the past five years at least. Want some proof of the proliferation of such tales? Here are a few examples just from recent magazine issues I can lay my hands on:

1.) Science Fiction Age, Sept. 1997: "Beauty in the Night" by Robert Silverberg.
Father splits after one night stand, leaving prostitute pregnant. Returns years later to beat and rape former prostitute, now mother, beat young son, have drunken affairs with other women under same roof with mother and child.

2.) On Spec, Winter 1997: "Family Melodies" by Laurie Channer.
Single mother who works nights. Young daughter befriends dead girl in park, who has been raped and murdered by her older brother.

3.) Talebones, Winter 1998: "Nor All Thy Tears" by Stefano Donati.
Father takes rap for crime of mother and does nine years. Mother becomes a drunk; son becomes a delinquent.

4.) Asimov's, Jan. 1998: "Taking Care of Daddy" by Brian C. Coad.
Opening lines of story: "Ever since Melissa's mummy'd died, she'd been taking care of her daddy. It was never easy."

5.) Science Fiction Age, Jan. 1998: "Jumping Off The Planet" by David Gerrold.
Table of Contents blurb: "Fleeing Earth, three children learn that the greatest interplanetary battles won't be between alien races -- but instead among the alienated members of their own family." Children are torn between divorced parents in a custody battle.

6.) Interzone, Jan. 1998: "What I Got For Christmas" by Pat Cadigan.
Near future London where aging hippie parents hooked on newest nano-drugs leave teenaged daughter to roam abandoned subways. Addict parents, dysfunctional family.

7.) Fantasy & Science Fiction, Feb. 1998: "Home Time" by Ian R. MacLeod.
Line from story: "Thus it was that little Woolley, the product of a nameless and unknown father, finally entered the world." This referring to the main character.

8.) The UFO Files, ed. Martin H. Greenberg, Feb. 1998: "The Man With X-Ray Eyes" by Richard T. Chizmar.
First line of story: "My father died when I was just a boy."

9.) The UFO Files, ed. Martin H. Greenberg, Feb. 1998: "The Observer" by Robert Charles Wilson.
Girl's mother dies when she is ten. Raised by father.

10.) And the above story from Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 1998: "Imprints" by Marina Fitch.
Father dies when child is one year old. Single parent family. See above comments.

I make no a priori judgment as to the quality of any of the above stories, or to any other stories centering around, or on, or mentioning broken families, or abusive parents, per se. A select few are quite touching stories (Ian R. MacLeod's "Home Time" and Brian C. Coad's "Taking Care Of Daddy" to name but two). Most are definitely not so well done, and are marred by a herd-like Politically Correct mentality I find exploitive and offensive, not to mention boring and unimaginative on a literary level. I am merely pointing out a definite and verifiable trend in science fiction and fantasy stories over at least the past five years (and obviously much longer). Some stories only mention in passing the theme(s) noted above. Many others, however, either use it as the main theme, or the de facto springboard for the story. But the common thread runs long and deep.

Dysfunctional familial issues of all sorts -- in measure small and mighty -- are, and should be, an open topic for science fiction and fantasy writers to explore. But we've done it to death, gang. Again, and again, and yet again -- in many issues, of many magazines and original collections, for many years now. And I'm tired, exasperated, and more importantly, bored with the whole affair. Please, enough already.

From a reader's point of view I exhort fantasy and science fiction practitioners alike to move on to new territory. Who are we trying to impress here, or perhaps sell to? Surely it won't tax your imaginations overly much to come up with something original for a change? After all, the entire Universe is your imaginative oyster. Aren't you a bit weary of building your pearls from the same grain of sand?

Writers aren't the only people at fault here. Despite all of the brilliant fiction they've published over the years, and all of the other things they've done to promote and advance the genre, I also blame the various magazine and book editors. It's a two-way street.

On the positive side, in this issue we have good stories from the likes of Ben Bova, John Morressy, Mark J. McGarry, and Albert E. Cowdrey. The Bova piece, "Remember Caesar" (a welcome "hard" SF story!), is notable for its believable invisibility suit and the purpose to which it is used. This being a most clever bit of intrigue which puts the fear of God into several world leaders who are posturing for war. Even in his short offerings, Bova never fails to satisfy.

John Morressy returns with another welcome episode in his long-running series of fantasy tales featuring the wizard Kedrigern. "Reflection and Insight" tells of a Princess and a magic mirror. Good fun, well done.

Mark J. McGarry's "The Mercy Gate" introduces us to a pair of interstellar archaeologists tagging along with alien pirates, who follow a trail of dead worlds for their valuable artifacts, their civilizations having been mysteriously wiped out. Traveling through abandoned Portals built by a long dead race they find death and ultimately the answer to the puzzle of the dead worlds. Ancient star gates, interesting aliens, and a life and death dilemma make this a good read.

For good old rock and roll type ghoulish fantasy we have my...

Editor's Choice:
"White Magic" by Albert E. Cowdrey
In the March 1997 issue of F&SF the author introduced us to Azalea Place, a subdivision of quiet old homes in magic-infested New Orleans. With "White Magic" we return to this seemingly innocent locale, and are given a crackling good tale of murder and a terrible spell gone awry. I don't read nearly the volume of horror as I do science fiction and fantasy, so I found myself really enjoying this visually gruesome tale. I've never read of a golem with quite the dilemma Cowdrey gives this dead creature, brought only partially back from the grave due to the interruption of the voodoo worked by its/his now murdered wife, an evil old witch and the neighborhood busybody. I did find myself wondering how the main characters and their neighbors accepted all of the spooky goings-on without batting so much as an eyelash, but then I figured if not in New Orleans, with its rich history of superstition, dark religious practices, and voodoo, then where?

I'm really becoming a fan of Cowdrey's Azalea Place tales and look eagerly forward to further stories. Hopefully, we won't have to wait another year for the next one.

All in all, a good issue of F&SF, despite its ambitious near misses. Several stories provide solid entertainment amidst a welcome editorial balance of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Copyright © 1998 by David A. Truesdale


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