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The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 2007
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 2007
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, founded in 1949, is the award-winning SF magazine which is the original publisher of SF classics like Stephen King's Dark Tower, Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon and Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. Each 160-page issue offers compelling short stories and novellas by writers such as Ray Bradbury, Ben Bova, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mike Resnick, Terry Bisson and many others, along with the science fiction field's most respected and outspoken opinions on books, films and science.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Website

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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The cover story for the May Fantasy and Science Fiction is "The Master Miller's Tale" by Ian R. MacLeod, which takes place in the "Aether" universe of his novels The Light Ages and The House of Storms. For the uninitiated, the story has no direct connection to the plots of either novel beyond the general setting, so no need to fear getting lost among unfamiliar references.

Aether is an alchemical substance that co-exists with industrial technology; various guilds initiate members with the secrets of magical spells to help make a specific kind of technology work more efficiently. Thus, as a young boy, the master miller of this tale learns from his father's spell book "complex melodies that would keep back those four apocalyptic demons of the milling industry, which were: weevils, woodworm, fire, and rats" (p. 10). There are other kinds of magic, strange to even those who cast spells, such as a mysterious peddler of captured winds sold to the miller for emergency use to propel the windmill when nature isn't cooperating. Also, there's the "magic" of technological innovation, the substitution of on-demand steam power for the vagaries of wind propulsion, and the social implications of that transition.

The story covers the themes of the novels in which conflict is rooted in the inevitable cultural upheavals -- for better or worse -- wrought by scientific advancement. Here, the last of the master millers, Nathan Westover, tries to hang on to the traditional ways even while the steam-powered mill of his estranged childhood crush, Fiona Smith, is taking away his business. In an act of desperation -- or, perhaps, defiance -- Nathan joins a group of Luddites who resort to terrorism to halt progress, with disastrous consequences.

From the opening paragraph, you know this is a story of the demise of Nathan and his tradition. "There are only ruins left now on Burlish Hill, a rough circle of stones. The track that once in the valley below is little more than an indentation in the grass, and the sails of the mill that once turned there are forgotten. Time has moved on, and lives have moved with it. Only the wind remains" (p. 6).

Wind is a central metaphor, both as a source of natural, albeit transient, power as well as the notion of the "winds of change" and the difficulty -- if not ultimate futility -- in preserving whatever may be borne off whichever way the wind blows (magical inducements notwithstanding). Without giving away too much about the conclusion, suffice it to say it poignantly portrays Nathan's struggle to preserve the things he loves, only to realize that inexplicable forces ultimately determine their fate.

As an aside, while the title seemingly echoes Chaucer's "Miller's Tale," and I've seen some superficial commentary to this effect, I fail to detect any connection between Canterbury ribaldry and MacLeod's somber recounting of the inevitability of relentless progress. MacLeod's tale stands on its own as first-rate fiction without need of help of such literary comparisons, particularly ones that are inaccurately drawn.

While MacLeod postulates an alternate industrial revolution to depict the onslaught of progress, in "The Tamarisk Hunter," Paolo Bacigalupi projects the exploitation of limited resources by those with the money to acquire them into a new future of a parched American West. The titular hunter earns a bounty for every patch of water-ingesting tamarisk removed from a system depleted by a decade long drought exacerbated by California's near-monopolistic control of water rights. To keep himself in business, the tamarisk hunter also surreptitiously and illegally replants the shrub. He fears that inquiries by a National Guard that acts in the interests of California rather than what local residents remain may mean discovery of his criminal activities. However, it is something much more in keeping with the nature of government, to protect the interest of the elite at the expense of the average citizenry:

"A trucker told me that California and the Interior Department drew up all these plans to decide which cities they'd turn off when They worked out some kind of formula: how many cities, how many people they could evaporate at a time without making too much unrest. Got advice from the Chinese, from when they were shutting down their old Communist industries. Anyways, it looks like they're pretty much done with it. There's nothing much moving out there except highway trucks and coal trains and a couple truck stops."
pgs. 69-70
Couldn't happen here, you say. According to an editor's note, the story was originally printed in High Country News and "sparked a discussion of just how deep drought might affect water rights in the West. Water managers and law experts were brought in, but nobody could produce anything more than wild guesses --- of which this story was considered as good as any" (p. 64).

Of a more personally disturbing nature is "Kaleidoscope" by K.D. Wentworth, in which a 52-year-old retired librarian encounters multiple outcomes of a lost dog and a blind date. The "am I crazy or is this really happening to me?" trope is well-trod territory, and I began to lose patience with the various fractured realities to just want to get to the ending. However, though I'm not ordinarily a fan of "everything works out eventually" conclusions -- because, that's generally not how real life works -- I did like the way the protagonist takes charge in selecting the alternative reality she wants.

"The Great White Bed" by Don Webb is a horror story about a boy who has become his grandfather's caretaker. Unfortunately, his grandfather's well-being depends on him in a way that could not have been anticipated, with life-changing results. Pretty creepy stuff.

Perhaps the most challenging story in terms of trying to figure out just what the hell is going on is "Telefunken Remix" by A.A. Antanasio. Editor Gordon Van Gelder must have feared that some readers might abandon this story out of confusion; in a prefatory note he says, "[Antanasio's] new story is challenging, complex, and fascinating. If it seems a bit odd at first, stick with it -- it will get even odder (but it will all make sense)" (p. 130). Advice worth taking.

Noel seeks to exchange places with his doppelganger, Leon; the mirrored spelling about the only thing that's immediately obvious in this story. Why Noel wants to do this, and how the alternate realities as Heavenside and "Errth" came to be as part of an intelligent design by way of an early twentieth century German investment group classifies this as a creation myth by way of a different kind of singularity. Oh, and in keeping with both MacLeod and Wentworth, it's also a sort of love story. While I wouldn't say there's a weak or bad story here. the bookends of the opening MacLeod and the closing Antanasio make this worth the proverbial price of the issue.

Copyright © 2007 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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