One of the things that I love about The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is that it’s a beautiful physical object. The September/October issue — available today! — is a perfect example, with its cover featuring an epic dragon illustrated by the team of Cory and Catska Ench. If you don’t have a copy yet, you can subscribe here or order a single copy here.
The Enches have done many covers for F&SF over the past decade. (The very first cover they ever did for the magazine was the illustration for my story “A Democracy of Trolls” back in Oct/Nov of 2002 — something I didn’t know until just now!) You can see more of their work, together and individually, at their website: enchgallery.com.
The cover illustrates this month’s novella, “The Lord of Ragnarök” by Albert E. Cowdrey. Regular readers of F&SF will be familiar with Cowdrey’s work and his range as a writer. But few may know that before he turned his attention to fiction he served as Chief of the Special History Branch in the U.S. Army, and published several non-fiction books on the history of medical service in the army as well as the environmental history of the U.S. south. Cowdrey won the World Fantasy Award in 2003 for his short story “Queen for a Day” and was a finalist again in 2009 for his novella “The Overseer.” We think this new novella is among his best work.
The story in this month’s free electronic digest for Kindle is “The Bone War” by Elizabeth Bear. This story marks the first fiction appearance by the multiple Hugo Award winning author in the pages of F&SF. (Bear’s first professional SF sale was the poem “ee ‘doc’ cummings” in the March 2003 issue of F&SF.) “The Bone War” takes place in the world of Bear’s Eternal Sky series. Fans who’ve read Bone and Jewel Creatures and Book of Iron will immediately recognize Bijou the Artificier. Everyone else is in for a new treat. Even if you don’t subscribe to the magazine, you can click on this link and read Bear’s story and all the columns in the issue for free.
The rest of the issue contains a mixture of new and familiar names.
Nick Wolven has published a half dozen stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction but his contemporary science fiction satire “We’re So Very Sorry For Your Recent Tragic Loss” marks his first appearance in this magazine. “Ten Stamps Viewed Under Water,” a fantasy inspired by her grandfather’s stamp collection, also marks the F&SF debut of the prolific Marissa Lingen. And we are excited to introduce you to Bo Balder, a multilingual writer from the Netherlands who is a two-time winner of the Paul Harland Prize for best original Dutch science fiction, fantasy, or horror. “A House of Her Own” is her first professional English short fiction publication. It’s a thought-provoking story about a far future where humans and aliens are connected in unexpected and revealing ways.
We’re happy to see other writers return to these pages with new stories. Paolo Bacigalupi’s “A Hot Day’s Night” originally appeared in a special issue of High Country News (where Bacigalupi once worked) devoted to the future of environmental ideas. We don’t think many genre readers will have seen it there, so we’re excited to share it and give a glimpse into the drought-plagued world of his new novel The Water Knife. “Don’t Move” by Dennis Etchison is a chilling tale from the three-time winner of both the British Fantasy and World Fantasy Awards. And David Gerrold, recent World Science Fiction Convention guest of honor and Hugo Awards ceremony co-emcee, along with Tananarive Due, returns to these pages with a horror story, “Monsieur.”
We also have two new tales from recent series. “The Adventure of the Clockwork Men” by Ron Goulart marks the return of the Victorian supernatural sleuth Harry Challenge, who previously appeared in F&SF to uncover “The Secret of the City of Gold” (Jan/Feb, 2012) and solve “The Problem of the Elusive Cracksman” (Nov/Dec 2012). And “Rascal Saturday” is the latest story in Richard Bowes’s The Big Arena cycle, centered around a future, climate-changed eastern United States. The first tale in the series, “Sleep Walking, Now and Then,” was a finalist for this year’s Nebula Award. But you don’t need to be familiar with the earlier stories in either series to appreciate these.
The magazine also has some great columns this month.
Charles de Lint tells you why you should read new books by Laura Bickle, Seanan McGuire, Eva Darrow, F.R. Mahler, and Andrew Klavan. David J. Skal offers his analysis of the film Ex Machina. In our regular “Curiosities” column, Phoenix Alexander discusses a forgotten classic of early 20th century African-American science fiction. And Chris Moriarty uses four recent anthologies — Mothership: Tales from Afro-Futurism and Beyond, Carbide Tipped Pens: Seventeen Tales of Hard Science Fiction, Twelve Tomorrows, and Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future — as a jumping off point for an essay on women currently writing hard SF.
If that doesn’t make you want to read the issue, I don’t know what else to add. F&SF has never been a better bargain. You can order print or digital copies of the issue here: www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1509.htm. Enjoy!
The contracts have all been accepted, so here’s a list of the new stories we bought in June that will be coming soon to an issue near you:
- “Nanabojou and the Race Question” by Justin Barbeau
- “An Open Letter To the Person Who Took My Smoothie From the Break Room Fridge” by Oliver Buckram
- “Touch Me All Over and Dark Beyond Stars” by Betsy James
- “The Stone War” by Ted Kosmatka
- “Belief” by Nancy Kress
- “One Way” by Rick Norwood
The Kostmatka and Norwood stories are novelets. The rest are short stories. The Barbeau story is a sequel to “Nanabojou at the World’s Fair” from the Nov/Dec 2014 issue.
– Tell us a bit about “The Body Pirate.”
“The Body Pirate” is set on a world where humanoids and birdlike creatures form (seemingly) symbiotic pairings. The birds dominate the pairings, considering themselves the “souls” while the humanoids are merely “bodies.” Our protagonist Adela has co-pioneered technology to allow a single soul to divide its time between two or more bodies. This has unintended consequences, both to the society and in Adela’s personal life.
– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
I got the initial concept of a bird/human pairing from a Counting Crows song lyric. (“There’s a bird that nests inside you, sleeping underneath your skin. / When you open your wings to speak, I wish you’d let me in.”) What made me want to write a story about these pairings was the notion that a human and bird might sometimes be a unit, but other times operate independently. So bird, person, and bird+person would be in one sense a single character, but in another sense three different characters. I loved that, both because I thought it would be interesting to represent visually on the page, and because I hardly know anyone who always behaves consistently and predictably. Creating these different variations on a given character’s personality struck me as a nice metaphor for how human beings really work.
– Was “The Body Pirate” personal for you in any way? If so, how?
Everything I write is personal on some level, and every protagonist of mine will suffer difficulties that parallel, at least metaphorically, things I’ve experienced. But also, this story partly grew out of a desire to understand myself better. The version of me that goes to a law office and writes briefs and takes depositions is, in a very real sense, not the same person who shows up at SF conventions and writes weird stories like “The Body Pirate.”
– How did the challenges of POV and formatting influence the writing of this story?
I fell in love with the idea of splitting the narrative into two columns when Adela splits into her bird and human halves. But it was a bit tricky. It meant coming up with a whole new set of pronouns (e.g., a single bird or human is “I”; a bird/human pairing is “we”; and group of pairings is “weall”). And it meant that when Adela split, the narratives about her two halves had to be the same length. At first I wasn’t sure that would work, since one half was doing hugely important research and getting embroiled in life-or-death conflicts while the other half was babysitting the kids. But the more I worked on this piece, the more I realized how much Adela’s home life was at the core of the story I wanted to tell.
– What might you want a reader to take away from “The Body Pirate?”
I’m just hoping the people who enjoy the story outnumber the ones who say, “Whaaaat?”
– What are you working on now?
I’m just finishing up a short story set on a haunted asteroid. (I don’t know if it works, because I can’t scare myself.) And I’ve written the ending of a novel set on the world of “The Body Pirate,” in which the humanoid creatures start a war of independence. Nearly everything I write, I do the ending first, so we’ll see if I have the nerve to complete an entire novel in this strange setting.
– Anything else you’d like to add?
Just to express my gratitude to Gordon, Charlie, everyone at F&SF, and all the magazine’s readers. I have been a reader, fan, and collector much longer than I’ve been a writer. To appear (for the second time!) in F&SF, which I’ve been reading since I was a boy, is a tremendous thrill and honor.
“The Body Pirate” appears in the July/August 2015 issue of F&SF, which can be purchased here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1507.htm
– What was the inspiration for “Paradise and Trout,” or what prompted you to write it?
We were hiking off-trail in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains—nine thousand feet altitude, aspen blazing yellow against a cobalt sky—and came upon a slender, glass-clear stream full of native Rio Grande Cutthroat trout. Two red slashes under the jawline give the fish its name. My friend lay down, rolled up his sleeve, and slipped his hand into an overhang in the grassy bank. In a flash he held a little flapping Cuttthroat. Just as quickly he let it go, and it dashed off. I lay on my belly and slid my arm into the water.
Fish world is quiet.
Slipping water, dappled sunlight, quietly waving fins, mouths and gills opening and closing, sometimes a leisurely swim or a quick dash across a pool. That’s it. Daylight, dark. Thunder. Rain.
The remote, pristine stream—my nose was almost in it—even smelled faintly of fish. They didn’t seem afraid. I could curl my hand around a slender body, slowly tighten my fingers, and then…flick, squirm, gone. The trout would shoot into the current, circle, then slip again under the bank to nudge along my palm.
I lay for a long time in the autumn sun, watching their nice fish faces, feeling their fish bodies with my hand as fish neighbor, sinking into fish world quiet.
– Was “Paradise and Trout” personal to you in any way, and if so, how?
I wonder if it’s possible to write a story that isn’t personal?
I’ve walked miles off-trail in New Mexico’s empty places, and taught for years among its unknowable deep cultures. For me, speculative fiction is the only medium that can embody this strange meeting of worlds.
This story brings together a canyon with a Spanish name; a Presbyterian great- grandfather; the burial of a Hopi friend; a trapped coyote that chewed its leg off—but on the wrong side of the trap. And trout. How the subconscious melds experience is both a mystery and the greatest hope for our planet’s blending cultures.
– What kind of research did you do for this story?
The little trout had brown spotted skins, flat, neat eyes, and a rosy blush where their cheeks would be. They weren’t worried. They didn’t like being fondled the way a cat does, but fondling didn’t seem to bother them unless they were squeezed. They were archetypally slippery, but not slimy: I came to understand “slippery as a fish.”
– What would you want a reader to take away from “Paradise and Trout”?
In spec fic we talk about “other worlds.” Most of us can find some bit of stoniness, greenness, wildness or wateryness that’s close, and chances are there’s an alien culture in it. It might even be nicer there than paradise, and hey, no waiting.
– Anything else you’d like to add?
I never did catch a fish.
“Paradise and Trout” appears in the July/August 2015 issue of F&SF, which can be bought here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1507.htm
– Tell us a bit about “Dixon’s Road.”
Alice works at an historic/cultural site, once the home of a poet named Laura Michel, on the terraformed planet of Alceste. One morning, she finds a visitor standing at the threshold of the place. It’s far too early for the regularly scheduled tour, but she offers him a cup of coffee and a personal walk-through of the house.
They move from room to room. Through the course of this tour we learn about the original inhabitants of this house: Michel, the honored poet, and Jim Dixon, the terraforming engineer responsible for the planet’s very existence. He is also the man who built the house. Alice believes it’s the “love story” between these two that really attracts tourists to the home. The visitor, of course, is Dixon himself, back from a century away on another terraforming project.
By the time Dixon leaves, we find out something more about the love story, love in particular and stories in general.
– What was the inspiration for this story?
It came, as most of my stories do, from a collision of ideas that blew up in my head while I was trying out a number of traditional science fiction themes. It was supposed to be a story about terraforming, then suddenly this poet shows up. It occurred to me that you could balance the making of planets and the making of poems. A poet and an engineer, good ones at least, are working toward the same ends, though I wonder how many would agree with me on that.
About this same time I ran into Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel lecture. I’m paraphrasing here (maybe I should look this up)* but he stated that if language is humanity’s defining attribute, poetry must be its highest achievement. I sort of believe that, though I’m not sure why. Poetry may be the most complex of our arts though it’s made with the simplest of tools. And yet there’s poetry in a beautiful building. There’s poetry in making a salad. There’s poetry in a piece of working plumbing. You can stop me right there and say that the poetry isn’t in those things, but in the poet – and that’s the point. We’re all poets, or we can be. I think that’s Brodsky’s point, too.
Also important: the notion of historical sites and “restored” homes of notable people. I live in Chicago – that should be “’nuff said,’” but in case you haven’t heard, we have a very bad record when it comes to preserving our history. The city propaganda tells you otherwise, but you can’t fool an old fool, and I’m about the oldest fool I know. As a cab driver once told me, “We’d bulldoze Christ’s tomb and put a Walgreens on it if there was a buck to be had.”
I have mixed feelings (maybe I should say I have complex feelings) about words like “heritage” and “restoration.” They are often used to mask the creation of fictions and myths. Perhaps that’s part of our nature. We’re creatures of language, as Brodsky might say, but we may even more be creatures of story. We make stories. It’s what we do. That the story is a lie or a truth matters less than whether we want to believe the story (what we mean by “believe” is a matter for a whole other conversation) or not.
Here in the States, we don’t have as many of these preserved homes, not like in other countries. We have some – mostly of statesmen and prominent rich people. Not so many writers and artists. So be it. We define ourselves in large part by what we revere.
History is one (of many) things humans do with time – the concept of time. This fascinates (or should) science fiction writers because much of what we know of the road ahead has to do with how we understand the road behind. The home of Dickens is preserved, for example. But what would Dickens feel about the place were he granted the chance to see it now? Would he recognize it as home? Would it be his home? Or has the passage of time, by its sheer brute force, rendered the place different and strange?
There’s nothing particularly new here in terms of concepts or ideas, other than the notion that, maybe, after humanity has played with every toy it can invent, we come back to poetry, because that’s who we are.
Then, of course, the story is also about death but, as Major Calloway tells Holly Martins in The Third Man, “Death’s at the bottom of everything.”
– You’ve mentioned that it took you almost 25 years to write “Dixon’s Road;” could you talk about that struggle, and what it was like to finally finish it?
The first time around with “Dixon’s Road,” I did dozens of drafts, settled on a third-person p.o.v. looking over Dixon’s shoulder. I felt some was missing, so I rewrote it some more. Sent it out to dozens of places, presented it at readings – even a reading where I inadvertently left the last three pages at home. That’s the reading equivalent of driving right off the pier (Advice to writers doing readings: don’t leave home without counting your pages first).
Eventually, Kris Rusch accepted the story for Pulphouse, but the publication folded before “DR” saw print. I gave up on it after that. Every writer has many stories jamming the lower drawers of file cabinets and desks, and “DR” was one of mine.
End of story – almost.
I’d think about “DR” every now and then. Or someone would ask me about it – didn’t that story make print? I was glad it hadn’t – something about it still didn’t seem finished to me.
Years go by. I’m out of work, looking for stories I can quickly finish to get some work out in the market. I’m on summer break from one of my few paying gigs. Bills are coming due. A friend, Julie Stielstra, tells me how much she loved “Dixon’s Road.” Well, I think, Julie knows a thing or two. Maybe I should look at it again.
Then – I run into that quote from Louis H. Sullivan: “Behind every building you see is the image of a man you do not see.” I have to thank Roger Ebert for using that in one of his blogs. May he rest in peace.
Something came together in a way it had not before. I completely rewrote the story – only glanced at the old typescript for some names. Changed the point of view. Found a first sentence and last sentence and tried my damndest to make everything else in the universe fit between them.
I sent it out, as most writers do, feeling mostly relief and exhaustion. When it was accepted, I began to feel, finally, that maybe I got it right this time.
– What would you want a reader to take away from this story?
I don’t know if I have any specific aims for what I want readers to take away. It would be pretty neat if they came away with feeling that human emotions can be as deep and mysterious as the universe in which they exist. We’re all co-authors of the universe, and it’s up to us whether we make a wasteland of it or, if not a paradise, at least a tolerable place to spend some time.
– What are you working on now?
I am currently furiously at work on a novella I’ve been promising people for years. It’s called “The Man Who Put the Bomp” and yes, it’s another saur story (at last!). Once it’s done, I hope to have enough wordage to put together a collection (again, at last).
If that’s not enough, I have another novella, a sort of prequel to the saur stories, currently called “Reggie Sent Us.” It may be the beginning of a novel – at least that’s what it started out as many years ago when I first came up with it. Not all the saurs are in it, but Agnes and Sluggo are featured.
I’m also at work on a novel called The Va-va-va VOOM! It all takes place on October 26, 1973, just that one day, and follows a teenager sent on a mission by an obscure-but-powerful office of the Inquisition in search of the greatest evil on the planet (the Chilean Coup, The Yom Kippur War and the Saturday Night Massacre, for examples, are all happening that month in that year). This, most obviously, takes her to the Southwest Side of Chicago, where I grew up. Kids are buying this weird green angel dust that glows in the dark, and once they’ve snorted up the stuff they grow tentacles out of their lower torsos. And all this horrid stuff comes from the lagoon in Marquette Park: the place where, in 1966, Martin Luther King said he felt more fear for his life than anywhere in the South.
I could never write about the old neighborhood before, and the only way I can do it now is by couching it in a kind of Lovecraftian horror – as interpreted by a bunch of proto-punk kids who hang around with a band called The Knuckles. I’m describing the novel as “Ulysses with tentacles.”
– Anything else you’d like to add?
I know some folks are going to read “DR” and think it’s retro or anachronistic. I’m not living in the Fifties, honest. I’m just trying something different and it doesn’t necessarily follow the script for the way science fiction writers are supposed to write about the future now.
I do an exercise with my Columbia science fiction writing students where we look out a window and I ask them two questions: 1.) What do you see? and 2.) What don’t you see? Extrapolating “The Future,” or any science-fictional landscape, foreground or background, requires us to account for absence as well as presence. We can fill all the emptiness or empty all the fullness, where we need to, if we need to. “Can you do that?” I hear that from students every term. The whole point of science fiction, for me, is “It won’t be easy, but … why not? This is science fiction. We can do anything as long as we don’t suck.”
* “If what distinguishes us from other members of the animal kingdom is speech, then literature – and poetry in particular, being the highest form of locution – is, to put it bluntly, the goal of our species.” – Joseph Brodsky, “Uncommon Visage,” Nobel lecture, December 8, 1987
“Dixon’s Road” appears in the July/August 2015 issue of F&SF. You can purchase it here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1507.htm