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Short Fiction Focus: July 2001
by Nick Gevers

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For a new column, a few words of explanation. For a year or so, I've been reviewing individual issues of magazines; and the pleasure of reading, and praising, fine new stories (which remain the essence, the germ, of fine SF and Fantasy) has inevitably been offset at times by the experience of reading, and damning, a limited number of earnest stinkers and cynical potboilers, a few of which will slip through even the wisest editor's net. To damn is to discourage, and to taint the image of the excellent remainder; and so a change of approach. Here. Now. Henceforward, I will survey the previous month's better stories, identifying and analyzing the cream of short speculative fiction across a range of publications; stinkers and potboilers are omitted by design, as are pieces merely ordinary, but any critical assessment is subjective, and omission need not constitute damnation. And some magazines and anthologies I simply don't get to see. And so, caveats uttered, to a first summary, for July 2001...

Interzone The landmark story of the month is the novelette "Isabel of the Fall," by Ian R. Macleod, in Interzone. MacLeod is well established as one of Britain's best SF short fiction writers, stylish, moody, and incisive; but here he excels himself. Set in the same fantastical Le Guinian or arabesque universe as his brilliant novella, "Breathmoss" (forthcoming in Asimov's), "Isabel" is a legend of an ancient human-colonized world (or habitat, or system), a place of vast perfect mirrors and their strange reflected light, of paradisal beauty and infinite fanaticism, where two young women meet, and fall in forbidden love, and are made an ambiguous example. MacLeod's prose scintillates, and his compassion burns; poetry and feminism will rarely combine better than here.

Interzone's other notable entry is "The Second Question," by the crime writer Mat Coward. This is one of those occasional droll and precisely calculated meditations on time travel that allow SF to function as authentic puzzle literature. The protagonist, a mysterious deadbeat, blunders his way to an understanding of the paradoxes that enable him to surf the centuries, and that in some insane yet fundamental way constitute him, explain his very being. Official bureaucracy is petulantly cynical; the narrator is engagingly obtuse; and the mixture is highly diverting, even if the ideal of transtemporal heroism is being ground, with more than a tinge of sadism, into dust. Sci Fiction at SCIFI.COM Similarly, Sci Fiction's strongest offering for the month, "His Own Back Yard" by the master fabulist James P. Blaylock, envisages time travel as something incidental, involuntary; but Blaylock's magnificently modulated lyricism, his command of all the notes of reminiscence and regret, sets his tale entirely at odds with Coward's casual breeziness. "His Own Back Yard," simply plotted, elegantly circular, is pure nostalgia, pure emotion really; but, as in "Isabel of the Fall," the emotion is utterly true, and generates an entrancing, soulful oratory.

Sci Fiction also features "Standing In His Light," the latest in Kage Baker's long series of novels and tales about the Company, that future enterprise whose cyborg agents, human yet inhuman, plunder past ages of their cultural riches. Here it is revealed that Vermeer's artistic output was manipulated to suit the stilted tastes of a coming century (so that's what it was, then). Baker's cocktail of personal frustration and ironic jocundity is agreeable if somewhat spurious, and her tale ends with (and like) a redemptive epiphany, which lifts the whole farrago well above the ordinary. Pretty good, really, in the end.

Fantasy & Science Fiction Fantasy & Science Fiction's lead story is "Tom Kelley's Ghost," by Steven Popkes, a whimsical, knowing, gloriously surreal account of the life of a small-town brothel-keeper in early 20th century industrial America. The whole narration is a tall tale of impotence defying its limitations, of weird prescient consultations and bizarre railway-tunnel showdowns, a tall tale made still taller by the realization that the teller is conceiving the details by some unearthly osmosis, speaking as he is to the mute phantom of the tale's protagonist, old Tom Kelley himself. Very cleverly conceived: impishly eerie.

And Asimov's: four dazzling short stories. "The World Without" is one of Steven Utley's most penetrating efforts yet, a part, if a tangential one, of his Silurian sequence. An old man, his academic specialty long since fallen into general neglect, is convinced that by travelling in time he has relinquished his birthright; his plight, or delusion, is searingly rendered. And his imprisonment in the hulk of himself is counterpointed by the dilemma of Lynda in "Sparks" by Robert Reed: she can vault across the timelines as he longs to do, but to what reward? Standing still is bad, but is restless mobility any better? Certainly Alis, the multinational operative in the acutely argued "Latency Time" by new writer Ruth Nestvold, finds that returning to an ancestral country can uncover intolerable truths, but the journey still has to be made. Only the Hard SF genius of Stephen Baxter has done with such doubts and conditionality: his latest Xeelee tale, "The Ghost Pit," is as ever grim yet expansive, a vision of galactic warfare, a curious consensual genocide with echoes of Easter Island, and human pertinacity in any context. Of course, anyone who has read the larger Xeelee series will know... but let his characters, and readers, enjoy their tumultuous interludes in peace.

Copyright © 2001 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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