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Short Fiction Focus: October 2001
by Nick Gevers

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Asimov's SF October is generally a good time for the SF short story: two major magazines publish their annual double issues, and these tend to assume the complexion of fully-fledged anthologies. This year, Asimov's departs from precedent by beginning a novel serialization (Robert Silverberg's The Longest Way Home), but it has plenty of space remaining for its proper stock in trade, stories of exceptional quality. So it's logical to begin there.

The outstanding story of the month is Michael Swanwick's "The Dog Said Bow-Wow". This could be called a post-technological caper tale: after a disastrous rebellion by AIs lodged in the Web, the world has settled into a Ruritanian repose, an age of archaism and aristocracy; and the mock-Tudor court of England is a ripe target for post-human thieves and confidence men. The intrigues of these operators, countermeasures by corrupt court functionaries, and a new irruption from the Hell of cyberspace are recounted with great venomous glee by Swanwick, the master of mischievous anachronism; he is in his postmodern element here, deconstructing and remasking past and future at a frantic pace, and a major story cycle seems to have begun. And speaking of such, the October/November Asimov's also offers installment number two of Charles Stross's Manfred Macx sequence, "Troubadour": even Swanwick texts can seem sober and deliberate in contrast with the manic conceptual prestidigitation of this series, the impact of which is future shell-shock. Europe will never look quite the same again.

More sedate but not to be underestimated: "The Boy" by Robert Reed is another of this writer's penetrating thought experiments, an unassuming but telling glimpse of an alternate Earth dominated by women since at least the time of Christ. Reed doesn't precisely rebut feminist dogma here, and indeed affirms it at points; but he is unsparing of utopian illusions, and his historical inversions, however radical, are also mournfully familiar. William Sanders points out our numerous causes for near-future despondency in "When This World is All on Fire": an environmentally depleted America is witnessing the biggest migrations of poor whites since the 1930s, as the whole country goes Dustbowl; and in painful irony, the refugees are intruding on Indian Reservations, the land they once valued so little they left it, contemptuously, to the Native Americans they had defeated. Similar resonances are struck retrospectively in "Lincoln in Frogmore", an Andy Duncan novelette reprinted from his collection Beluthahatchie (2000); the great President addresses ordinary Southern blacks late in the Civil War (or doesn't), and America's myths are tinged with unease...

Fantasy & Science Fiction Thus, the thrusting brightness of Stross and Swanwick is countered -- but certainly not trumped. And the October/November double Fantasy & Science Fiction does not trump Asimov's, but makes a brave effort in that direction. "One of Her Paths", a major novella by Ian Watson, is a little glib in its embroiderings on quantum physics, but very compelling in its description, however time-honoured, of a starship's colonizing mission to Tau Ceti; the unexpected haunted loneliness of the voyage, and the staggering revelations this brings, are handled with enough dexterity that certain deep implausibilities glide unheeded by. Much harder to ignore is the latest of Gene Wolfe's cryptic minimalist tales, "In Glory Like Their Star", which is told in the grudging opaque voice of an alien visiting Earth in the far past; at a guess, Wolfe is glossing here the breach between humans and their gods, a schism tragic but so utterly necessary that it is almost always misconstrued by mere mortals. Of course, Wolfe's readers, mere mortals that we are, are fully accustomed to such bafflement; it is a primary joy of reading him...

Also highly worthwhile in F&SF: "About Face" by John Morressy, a spry humorous fantasy tale about a hideous prince and the rather mundane wizard who discountenances him; "Other People" by Neil Gaiman, a brilliant vignette concerning the circular logic of damnation; "Queen for a Day" by Albert E. Cowdrey, the sort of comedy from which New Orleans may never recover; and "Legerdemain" by Jack O'Connell, a predictable but stylish fantastic meta-fiction.

The October Interzone is very solid. The highlight is probably "Marcher" by Chris Beckett, which at first seems to deal with a standard investigation of disappearances and drug trading in a near-future state welfare ghetto, but soon branches into a keen consideration of alternate worlds and their menacing existential implications. Political and personal frontiers extend infinitely, and the perplexities of professional life ramify desperately with them; resolution of all this is impossible, but Beckett gets around that difficulty with neat elegance. Well done. The latest of Zoran Zivkovic's short fantasies on musical themes, "The Cat", also glances sideways in time, but with a subtle mutedness: an old widower sees his life in an unaccustomed context, and his consolation, though perverse, is real. Tony Ballantyne, meanwhile, unleashes an impressive array of satirical missiles in "Indecisive Weapons": assassination is rampant, and there are huge profits to be made in novel variations on the protection racket. This story's ending is the best in some while.

The 3rd Alternative Interzone has its British rivals, and The 3rd Alternative (visit www.ttapress.com) is one to note. Gifted with an edgy design aesthetic utterly different from those of the other SF magazines, TTA emphasizes slipstream fiction of dark contemporary or near-future tones, stories often introspective and macabre. The Autumn 2001 issue is a fine one. "Homeground" by Tim Lees is a somewhat surreal rendering of an alien landing in the English countryside, the main consequences of this epochal event being amusingly banal twists in parochial politics; Lees seems to know this ground intimately well. "Laying on Hands" by Martin Simpson is an affecting view of a life shaped by casual but crushing foreknowledge of death; "By Her Hand, She Draws You Down" by Douglas Smith examines vampirism from an unusual and genuinely horrifying angle; and "Violin Road" by Alexander Glass is a fantasy of London's back streets that opens a yawning gulf behind the City's bourgeois facades. These stories are all well-written, moody, jaundiced; a bit of space opera now and again might relieve the atmosphere, but that would be a sorry capitulation. Long live all alternatives as rewarding as this one, however bleak their perspective.

Sci Fiction at SCIFI.COM On the web in October: Sci Fiction presents the wonderful and whimsical nostalgic reveries of a dying man in "Small Houses" by James P. Blaylock; and, more recently, Richard Paul Russo's potent far-future political morality tale, "The Dread and Fear of Kings". In the same finely-tuned voice of melancholic determination as distinguished his superb novel Ship of Fools, Russo tells of a mad king's despairing course of global conquest, and of the decision of a minor official of his travelling court to oppose any further vandalism and slaughter. Sparely told, deceptively simple in its details and contrasts, possessing something of the timeless texture of legend, this is Russo's best short work so far. On Revolution SF (www.revolutionsf.com), a notable inclusion is the acidly narrated corporate-aristocratic satire "Prince of Christler-Coke" by Neal Barrett, Jr.; how Texans hate pretension...

Thus the fiction pearls of October. Unfortunately, this is the last Short Fiction Focus column on SF Site (by myself, anyway); my short fiction reviews now shift to Locus, recommencing there in the February 2002 print issue. I'd like to thank the editors of SF Site for tolerating my regular presence in their virtual midst, and the readers of my column (however many there have been) for their patience with my critical subjectivities and multitudinous stylistic tics. It's been fun, and I hope to remain a part of SF Site, in other capacities. Time will tell.

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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