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Short Fiction Focus: August 2001
by Nick Gevers

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August's Fantasy & Science Fiction contains three very strong stories. The best of them, "One Last Game" by Robert Reed, is one of its prolific author's finest tales to date, a brooding meditation on the perils of foresight. In a future promising increased longevity but simultaneously threatening continued economic uncertainty, several couples, their children in tow, gather for a short holiday at a lakeside cabin. The pact they make with those children is playful but ultimately dreadful; the oldest boy, rebellious already, cannot bear its exorbitant terms, its abnegation of free will, and his fraught reaction is strikingly rendered. This is a powerful parable.

Fantasy & Science Fiction Elsewhere in this issue, Carol Emshwiller comes close to matching Reed's brilliance, from a probingly humorous angle, in "The Project." Here, the men of a hilltop tribe engage, as men are prone to do, in a vast incomprehensible enterprise akin to the Pyramids and history's countless other examples of impressive but bootless prestige engineering: in essence, piling large rocks on even larger rocks, while their womenfolk struggle to keep food on the table and predators from the gates. Told entirely in the hilariously perplexed voice of a man pursuing his fugitive mate (who heads, willy-nilly, for lowland regions where men are men but at least think straight), this is one of the most diverting feminist SF stories of recent years, confirmation of its author's reputation for captivatingly eccentric acuity. Meanwhile, Paul J. McAuley, relinquishing his customary Hard SF idiom for the recursive ironies of alternate history, sets out in "The Two Dicks" the bewildered naivete of a Philip K. Dick enslaved to the Establishment and correspondingly stunted as a writer; reality is fluid, timelines overlap, the High Castle looms in the background -- all in very tolerable tribute to Dick and his surreal paranoid oeuvre. It's been done before, notably by Michael Bishop, but McAuley manages a few fresh twists, and the PKD legend lives stimulatingly on...

Thus the F&SF fare. Looking slightly backwards, there is good material also in Spectrum SF #6, the July issue of what has fast established itself as a close, albeit quarterly, rival to Interzone at the forefront of the British SF magazine market. "First To The Moon!" by Stephen Baxter and Simon Bradshaw is, as its title implies, every bit as recursive as McAuley's Dickian excursion: in yet another of Baxter's ironically constructed parallel histories, 1950 sees the launch of Britain's first manned moon rocket, a rickety contraption which carries with it the Empire's hopes of outdoing in prestige the triumphant Third Reich. But all is not well, and bitter Baxterian melancholy is not far behind. Weep not for all opportunities lost. A not dissimilar techno-pessimism informs "Instructions for Surviving the Destruction of Star-Probe X-11-57" by Eric Brown, which does not encourage trust in benign voices of authority. And Mary Soon Lee suggests, in her very entertaining "Lunar Classifieds," that even when space is successfully conquered, mishaps and misapprehensions can only multiply.

Interzone Sci Fiction at SCIFI.COM And so on to Interzone #170, an unfortunately somewhat disappointing issue. Best of an indifferent bunch here is "The Whisper" by Zoran Zivkovic, the increasingly well-known Serbian author of subtle, often understated, literary SF and fantasy stories. A teacher, or, more properly, supervisor, of autistic children discovers that his charges may know more of higher realities in compensation for their ignorance of this one; his response is unheroic, but all the more convincing for that. "Martian Madness" by Thomas M. Disch is a minor but engagingly zany vision of mischief and misunderstanding on a much altered Red Planet; Disch is relaxing here, but even in his somnolence he leaves many competitors in his wake. This is about all that can be said for the August Interzone...

Strongly recommended from August's line-up of stories on Sci Fiction: "The Black Heart" by Patrick O'Leary, "Neutrino Drag" by Paul Di Filippo, and "Charlie's Angels" by Terry Bisson. For a full discussion of these, and some forthcoming Sci Fiction stories, see www.locusmag.com/2001/Reviews/Gevers09_SciFiction.html.

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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