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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
SF Age
Science Fiction Age, March 1998
"Craphound" Cory Doctorow
"The Colonel in Autumn" Robert Silverberg
"I Borrow Dave's Time Machine" S.N. Dyer
"Founding Fathers" Stephen Dedman
"Skin Dragons Talk" Ernest Hogan
Like England's Interzone (whose January issue I reviewed less than enthusiastically last time), SF Age is a good magazine. Both it and Interzone deserve unqualified support. But even the legendary John W. Campbell, Jr. published his share of mediocre, and yes, even eminently forgettable issues of the old Astounding SF (later Analog).

Save for the lead story -- a first professional sale! (about which more later) -- I found this issue of SF Age uninspiring. Not bad mind you, but just another issue of a science fiction magazine going through its paces, rife with predictability and nothing really new to offer, both in terms of form or idea.

"Founding Fathers" ends just as it began, with a colony planet full only of white supremacists, who neither change nor grow following the resolution of the mystery of who switched the frozen embryos from their "pure" stock to those containing black genes, who "terminated" them years before, and why. They're just as revolting at the end of the story as at the outset. Issues are raised, prejudices revealed, the mystery solved.

"I Borrow Dave's Time Machine" is perfect for its two-page length. A light bit of time travel fun involving the grand masters of Art and why they may have painted what they did.

The usually gonzo and irreverent Ernest Hogan's "Skin Dragons Talk" devolves eventually into thin slapstick, and even for a "quickie" bit of serio-comic nonsense it loses partial credibility as a result. Intelligent, devious viruses from space take over -- and live through -- a low-life screwup's Yakuza-style dragon tattoos and help him outwit the lunar-based Yakuza-controlled Motocorp organization. The lowest life form gets the biggest last laugh here. We have, friends, a great pilot sketch for this season's summer replacement sitcom: A bumbling Yakuza with a few fingers left consults his little pals from space who, episode after episode, make the Japanese Mob on the Moon look like the Watergate burglars. The anime version, "Third Rock from the Doyo" ought just about to cover it. Hogan has done better and I look forward to his next.

Which brings us to Robert Silverberg's novella "The Colonel in Autumn." I entertained high hopes for this story, but it wasn't to be. This is the third in a series of stories (all from SF Age) that will eventually lead to a novel, I'm sure. The first being "Beauty in the Night" (Sept. 97), and the second "On the Inside" (Nov. 97). The framing device for the stories comes by way of an invading force of aliens known as the Entities. They come in several species and for the most part seem benign -- at least until provoked -- if all-powerful and totally controlling. Mankind has become quickly and irrevocably enslaved. "Beauty in the Night" takes place in England, "On the Inside" shows how a computer whiz in the Czech Republic becomes a communications expert for the Entities. Events from both stories are referenced in "The Colonel in Autumn," which traces several generations of the Carmichael family of northern California, and how they've chosen to live under the oppressive thumb of the Entities.

The only problem I have with this particular story is its commercially bland formula. I felt I was reading the story from which yet another cheap made-for-tv disaster movie would be optioned. You are familiar with this stock formula: a handful of disparate characters are introduced; we follow their lives and families in little vignettes as we jump back and forth amongst them in alternating scenes, or, in this case, scene breaks/chapters. Throw them all together at the end as they strive to cope with or overcome the disaster. Pick your Disaster-of-Choice, for it doesn't matter: an incoming asteroid or comet, a fire in a famous hotel in Las Vegas, the sinking of a titanic ocean-liner, an earthquake or a volcanic eruption -- or the ever-present threat of alien invasion. The made-for-tv plot is identical.

"The Colonel in Autumn" gives us nothing new whatsoever. Change the names of the characters and where they live and this story remains as boringly repetitive as they come. It is lackluster, unimaginative, commercial pap, devoid of a scintilla of inspiration or originality. In fact, Silverberg has used this very same formula fairly recently in his 1995 story from Omni-online "Hot Times in Magma City." It was subsequently reprinted in the mid-December 1995 issue of Asimov's SF. The "Mount Pomona" volcano has erupted and threatens to engulf the Los Angeles area with its ever-creeping lava flows. Gosh, where on the Big Screen have we seen something very like this recently?

The only saving grace in this hoary disaster plot therefore comes by way of the characters we are supposed to come to know, and with whom we are supposed to vicariously identify and empathize. This is hard to do anymore, so many times have we been given the same basic story line. We've been beaten to death with it so often that we know it by heart and merely sigh, and, shaking our heads, think Oh, not another one of those. Robert Silverberg is a consummate professional, make no mistake. If anyone can make this trite disaster formula readable, he can. But merely readable isn't good enough in my book.

I fear the Robert Silverberg we've all come to respect, admire, and honor for his creative genius is in the past. Such marvelous works as Dying Inside, The Book of Skulls, Born With The Dead, A Time of Changes, The World Inside and so many more, came from the late sixties through the early to mid-seventies, at which time Silverberg became justly discouraged and quit writing for a number of years. Who could blame him? He deserved to be making much more for his efforts, but wasn't. So his reappearance in 1980 with Lord Valentine's Castle (the first in the immensely popular Majipoor books) was cause to rejoice. Until it became apparent that regardless how polished, how entertaining he could still be, Silverberg was now writing stuff guaranteed to make him the money his inventive early work had denied him. And though the "commercial" Silverberg is still head and shoulders avobe just about anyone writing the same epic-fantasy type series' today, the creative spark of genius which marked his early work is non-evident.

Ever the optimist, I keep reading one of my favorite authors, hoping. But with stories like "Hot Times in Magma City" and "The Colonel in Autumn" stamped with Made For Another Boring Disaster TV Movie all over them, I merely sigh, shake my head and think, Oh, not another one of those.

On a brighter note, the most fully realized and internally successful story in the March 1998 SF Age is the first professionally published story by Cory Doctorow, and is my...

Editor's Choice:
"Craphound" by Cory Doctorow
Aliens have once again decided to visit Earth in this lighthearted romp. Rather than having conquest on their minds, they merely wish to visit, and explore. Jerry is a junk dealer, a collector, a pack rat of crap and antiques and memorabilia, depending on your point of view. He knows what to look for and how to resell it for a profit. He befriends one of the visiting aliens, who he has named "Craphound," and they become great pals as they visit flea markets, auctions, and garage sales, always in search of the oddment or bauble only the keen eye of the true collector can spot. Through good times and bad, we learn the inner workings of the collecting business, including the unwritten moral code of the collector toward his brethren. The real lesson is learned, however, from the amiable and wiser-than-he-seems Craphound just as the aliens decide to take their leave of Earth, that the true worth of something is not judged by its dollar value. "Craphound" is a pleasant, likable, satisfying story. It is a nice professional debut for Cory Doctorow and kudos to editor Scott Edelman for rescuing it from his slush pile.

Copyright © 1998 by David A. Truesdale

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