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The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 1999
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 1999
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 John O'Neill

I suppose I shouldn't admit this, but I played hooky on a number of overdue review commitments to sneak a look at the September issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and all because of the cover.

I'm scheduled to review the big October/November double issue, packed with new fiction from folks like Jonathan Carroll, Lucius Shepard, Terry Bisson, Harlan Ellison, and Ursula K. Le Guin (on sale September 1st, buy yours today!), so it probably wasn't the best strategic move from an editorial point of view. But there was the September issue, wrapped in a gorgeous Vincent di Fate painting of gargantuan blue aliens, the very archetype of a BEM (that's "bug-eyed monster" to you kids in the audience), moving in statuesque fashion down the ramp of a parked flying saucer. You can see how something like that will make a difference to a loosely organized schedule such as mine.

So instead of my planned piece on the latest fantasy epic, here I am with a fist full of notes on the September F&SF (likely still on sale in tardy bookstores and corner smoke shops, if you move fast). One thing I note straight off is that F&SF has had a wonderful run of cover art lately -- take a run over to the Magazines Received column at FictionHome to see what I mean. I'm not sure who to credit with this sudden lush beauty, since the masthead at F&SF doesn't list an art director, but I'll take a stab in the dark and give it to editor Gordon van Gelder. Nice goin', Gordon.

The lead story in the September issue is "The Wizard Retires," a debut effort by Michael Meddor. Good to see new authors still getting a fair shake at the distinguished F&SF. Francis Woolerey just wants to spend his remaining days with his granddaughter Karen and his cat Britannia, tending to his modest home in a small American town. But associates of his, a group of dedicated men whom he broke with some 2,000 years ago, won't permit that. Woolerey has something they want very badly, and now that they've found him again it looks like his final days will not be peaceful at all... The suspense in "The Wizard Retires" builds very well, with a fair number of surprises thrown in, and the final showdown between Woolerey and the evil Academy makes a rousing climax for such a short tale. A slightly richer back story was the only thing I might have wished for, as the set-up seems remarkably thin for characters and institutions of such antiquity.

The centrepiece of the issue, and the inspiration for the big blue canine on the cover, is "Ninety Percent of Everything," a huge novella from the collaborative trio of John Kessel, Jonathan Lethem, and James Patrick Kelly. I don't know about you, but I was surprised to find three such major genre names attached to a single piece -- sort of like finding Dylan, Springstein and Elvis Costello on the same concert ticket. I kept looking for evidence of artistic strain, as if this was a bar bet nobody could manage to back out of sober, but the piece is nearly flawless -- an original tale of first contact, bizarre alien biology, and eccentric human personalities. There's even a precedent: "The True History of the End of the World," by the same trio, appeared four years ago in F&SF. Makes you want to find that bar and hang out near the espresso machine.

If the phrase "Ninety Percent of Everything" mostly brings to mind for you Theodore Sturgeon's famous quote that 90% of everything is, well, crap, that's because it's supposed to. At five remote sites around the world, huge blue aliens land and promptly eat their landing craft. Then they begin to dig tunnels deep into the earth's crust, coming to the surface only to rest and excrete huge quantities of foul-smelling feces, which they lay in enormous collaborative piles. When each pile is roughly the size of a condominium, it grows a set of strangely beautiful jewels at the summit, and the aliens -- soon dubbed "shitdogs" by a rapidly disinterested public -- move on to another one. The story begins years after the landing as Professor Liz Cobble, an expert of shitdog behaviour, is contacted by Ramsdel Wetherall, one of the world's richest men. Wetherall has an audacious plan for a unique structure that will guarantee him the kind of privacy he most desires -- while simultaneously allowing unprecedented access to the mysterious alien jewels. Soon Liz is caught up in a scheme that will have enormous implications, not just for the alien shitdogs but for all humanity.

The shortest tale offered herein is "By Ben Cruachan," by Mary A. Turzillo. Duncan Campbell, Scottish Lord, is awakened one night by a desperate stranger who begs for protection. Still not fully awake, Duncan gives it -- a promise he comes to regret when the men who hunt the stranger arrive the next morning, men who include his future father-in-law. But wisely or not, Duncan has given his oath, and his decision to stand by it in the face of relatives, a ghost, and even his own ambition, takes him down a surprising trail. For all its fine twists, I found the story lacked a strong narrative thread, and certainly lacked a climax in the classical sense.

The final story, "The Queen of Erewhon" by Australian Lucy Sussex, impressed me far more than I expected, considering how unfamiliar I was with her previous work. An anthropologist journeys to the highlands for a spectacular trial, one which has packed a small town. The highlands are unusual chiefly for their powerful family Houses, as well as the existence of the Rule, which governs marriage law and sexual relationships. The last living descent of the House of Erewhon has, like her father, broken with the Rule, and this time the result has been death and disaster. Wrapped around this deceptively simple tale is a mystery -- really two mysteries, a generation apart -- which the narrator attempts to penetrate as the court case continues.

A number of small things keep the reader intriguingly off balance for most of this tale. The narrator's gender remains unrevealed until very near the end, when it suddenly assumes paramount importance. The majority of the small town cast appears to be homosexual, or at least enjoys a very fluid sexuality, which is the sort of thing that only seems to occur in fantasy. And the story is narrated by multiple voices, through the trick of interview excerpts inserted throughout, which eventually had me drawing charts in the margins to sort out all the relationships. But the effort to penetrate this tale is well worth it. Don't miss.

Lastly, the various columns from the magazines regulars -- book reviewers Charles de Lint and Elizabeth Hand, film critic Kathi Maio, and columnists Greg Benford and David Langford (the 'ford brothers) -- fill out the issue nicely. I did find myself cheerfully disagreeing with just about everything Kathi Maio said in her comparison between The Matrix and Dark City (the latter she enjoyed, the former she considered "isn't even worth wasting a free rental coupon on"), and occasionally lost during Benford's rather rambling science contribution, "The Science Fiction Century." Benford's thesis seems to be that in the transition from 19th to 20th century, SF writers replaced poets as the "unacknowledged legislators of tomorrow." But he spends most of his time with science-fiction-becoming-fact anecdotes, especially Astounding SF editor John W. Campbell's famous run-in with the FBI over Cleve Cartmill's 1994 story "Deadline," which described the creation of an atomic bomb from fissionable uranium with eerie accuracy. Benford does shed some interesting new light on the tale, and acknowledges that "most SF advocates have hailed each predictive bull's-eye as though the authors were using rifles, when in fact the genre sprays forth a shotgun blast of what ifs."

All in all, the September issue of F&SF is a compact, beautiful, and inexpensive package. A bargain, in other words. Like each of its issues, this one entertains as well as makes a handy introduction to an author or two you may not be familiar with now, but soon will be. The upcoming 50th anniversary issue promises to be one of the most impressive in its history. You can subscribe on-line at their website, or find single copies on most newsstands.

Copyright © 1999 by John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the founder of the SF Site.

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