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Editor's Choice: Short Fiction Reviews
by David A. Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has been reading science fiction and fantasy for forty years. For the past four years he has edited TANGENT: The Only Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Fiction Review Magazine. It was runner-up for the 1997 Hugo Award. The intent of this column is to present reviews of selected short fiction that strike Dave's interest as his reading for Tangent continues. If you would like to read more short fiction reviews, try Tangent as it reviews every original story in all American, Canadian, British, and Australian professional SF & F magazines (as well as many others).

For more of David's opinions, we've put together a table of contents for other Editor's Choice columns.

For information on the contents of an issue or for subscription details, you can try the following sites:
Asimov's Science Fiction
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
On Spec
Cemetery Dance
Tomorrow SF
Asimov's Science Fiction, February 1998
Asimov's Science Fiction, February 1998
"In the Realm of Dragons" Esther M. Friesner
"The Picture Business" Walter Jon Williams
"The Planck Dive" Greg Egan
"The Very Pulse of the Machine" Michael Swanwick
"The Spear of the Sun"
(reprinted from Interzone #112, October 1996)
David Langford
"Izzy and the Hypocrite Lecteur" Eliot Fintushel
"The Stubbornest Broad on Earth" Janet Kagan
Gardner Dozois has included a little something for everyone in this top-notch February issue. For those so inclined, there's humor to be found in Brit David Langford's recursive mystery fluff "The Spear of the Sun," which recounts another investigative bit of genius from his fictional detective M. Hercule Flambeau.

For those whose tastes run to the nostalgic or sentimental, we are given Janet Kagan's "The Stubbornest Broad on Earth," which, with a nod to her own grandmother, tells of the evacuation of Earth due to an impending Solar Nova, and what it takes from sympathetic aliens to get one stubborn lady to leave. With a twist.

In the current political climate where more often than would seem reasonable, the bad guys in the real world never seem to get what is coming to them, editor Dozois has sought to rectify matters with the inclusion of two fine stories where the evil doers do get their comeuppance, in spades. Nebula winner Esther M. Friesner has turned in a moving contemporary fantasy titled "In the Realm of the Dragons." In this one, homophobic street punks are treated as they have been treating others and are given a glimpse into their own souls, and their own worst nightmares -- that they too might be gay. The fantasy element is deftly interwoven on both the psychological and "real" levels, rendering "In the Realm of Dragons" a finely wrought bit of horror as well. This is a story I'm sure will be talked about in the coming year.

The always-entertaining Walter Jon Williams gives us a high-tech glimpse into the low-life of sleazoid wiseguy "Paulie" and his new gang of mob pals in "The Picture Business." Paulie has appropriated the fancy home of his latest hit victim, which rests comfortably among the hills of Topanga Canyon. He comes across and is fascinated with a new high-tech gizmo called a mediatron, which allows its user to remake old movies, or create entirely new ones, by cutting and pasting (i.e. editing) scenes or famous actors from old movies. After learning how to use the mediatron from his hooker girlfriend Gloria, Paulie is too successful in his directorial debut (having made his first gangster opus much too close to reality). His mob friends gently attempt to dissuade him from going public with it. Furious, and quite full of himself, Paulie declines. Guess what happens to Paulie. Part of the charm of this story lies in Williams' depiction of the mob life, part send-up and part straight from movies like Good Fellas, replete with gum-popping bimbo girlfriends, ho-hum murder, and street morality passing for the real thing.

I never know quite what to say after reading an Eliot Fintushel story. However, the following adjectives usually always apply, if in different measure: gonzo; whacko; bizarre; offbeat; hilarious (always hilarious); or phrases like "brilliantly inventive," or "What exactly is the color of the sky in this guy's world?" or "Absolutely mesmerizing -- a bit like Lafferty on lithium." Take your pick when racing headfirst through "Izzy and the Hypocrite Lecteur," the latest in this loveable character's adventures. I choose the phrase "racing headfirst" gentle reader, because one doesn't exactly read a Fintushel story, one merely absorbs it while moving one's eyeballs from left to right, and again, over and over, until each page is quickly turned, and the next and the next, until you slam into the final word at The End. And then, with your first full breath in minutes, when the fresh supply of oxygen to the brain downloads what you've just experienced, you find yourself shaking your head in amused disbelief, or just plain dumbfounded amazement. And you know, in your heart of hearts, that you didn't believe one damn word of what you just read. But you also know that Fintushel is one of the Greatest Liars, and Tellers of Tall Tales, since the master Himself, R. A. Lafferty.

So just what is "Izzy and the Hypocrite Lecteur" all about? Damned if I know. I think it has to do with Izzy going to meet his One and Only for their silk anniversary (though they've never met!). It has to do with odd notions on time travel ("Flextime"), and Fin's own unique, proprietary invention he has termed "Orthographic Propulsion," which I'll leave to him to explain (along with Izzovision and womporfing, the funniest made-up name since his "jeebasphere" in his soon-to-be-reprinted "Santacide" from Crank! #7, Summer 1996). But along the way you'll need to know a little French, a little Latin, and some Buddhist/Zen philosophy, but not too much. Because what Fin does with all rational concepts defies description.

To be honest, when you're working on the extreme edge, as Fintushel is, not everything works all of the time. There are brief moments, and moments only they are, where some of the ramifications of Orthographic Propulsion, when married to his concept of Flextime, intrude on the text, and are just too cute, or sophomoric, for their own good. Seen in a different light they could just as easily be viewed as just too cool. Whether too cool, or too cute, one thing is for certain: You never know what to expect from an Eliot Fintushel explosion, but having seen at least one, you'll find yourself looking to the skies for his next fireworks display. And after each story you'll be asking yourself the same question: Just what is the color of the sky in this guy's world?

The following pair of stories left me full of that grand, and all too rare, sense of wonder so quintessential to my view of science fiction. The first of which is one of two special selections for this February 1998 issue of Asimov's SF and gets the nod as my...

Editor's Choice:
"The Very Pulse of the Machine" by Michael Swanwick
This story begins much like a typical Analog hard sf piece. Two explorers on Io, one of Jupiter's moons, in the aftermath of a tragic accident. One has been killed, and the other is transporting her back to their ship. But along the way the dead partner begins speaking to the survivor, and here all similarity with the normal rescue scenario ends. With a healthy dose of creative extrapolation of known science and his poet's artistic eye, Swanwick transforms what would have been a dry adventure (in less capable hands) into a surrealist fantasy of cold choices and quasi-mystical salvation. The reader is left to marvel at the height to which one of sf's oldest scenarios has been raised. Swanwick's prose turns Io from a deadly volcanic wasteland to a magical otherwhere teeming with colorful electromagnetic forces and crystal gardens of enchantment and life. For those who mistakenly believe that hard SF is naught but rockets and thrust ratios, guess again.

As refreshing and full of the sense of wonder as "The Very Pulse of the Machine" is, Greg Egan does it one better in my second...

Editor's Choice:
"The Planck Dive" by Greg Egan
The best science fiction challenges its readers like no other form of literature is capable, asking of the reader to become involved in the process itself, to form a unique symbiotic relationship with the writer. It is a dynamic artform in which the author actually writes up to the reader, as opposed to more comfortable and less mentally engaging forms of written entertainment. The rewards can be immensely worthwhile.

Greg Egan's "The Planck Dive" is an excellent example of beautifully written hard science fiction. In a far future time where Virtual travel around the galaxy is instantaneous, and nanomachines and cloning are commonplace, Egan takes a crew of explorers into a black hole. Before the Event takes place, he offers one of the characters, a visitor from Earth, a real-time cyber-tour of what to expect by unveiling a Virtual portrait of the underlying quantum physics of such an endeavor: the grandiose yet delicate balance of powerful symmetric and chaotic particle forces that, working together and in designed opposition, reveal the beauty of the universe on a cosmic scale, played out in all of its visual glory through Egan's prose. Thus we are given a marriage of Art and Science like few writers are capable, and the resultant sense of wonder is rekindled in all but the most jaded, or unappreciative. There's more to this story to be sure, an extra layer added when a self-appointed, egotistical poet, or "narrologist," from Earth has decided that he is the only one capable of recording this Event for posterity via his myth-generating poetry, while the scientists do not believe such a subjectively filtered approach will do justice to the Truth as revealed by Science.

There is more going on in this story than meets the eye. Rendering accessible the difficult concepts of physics and astronomy for the lay reader in an entertaining form is but one of Egan's achievements as he, like Swanwick, artfully peels back a small corner of the reality we know, motions us over and entreats us, smiling, to "Take a look at this!" in order to share with us some of Nature's hidden marvels.

Look for "The Planck Dive" and "The Very Pulse of the Machine" to appear in either David Hartwell's Year's Best SF #4, or Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction, Sixteenth Annual Collection in 1999. My bet is you'll see them in both.

Copyright © 1998 by David A. Truesdale

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