The September/October 2017 issue of ‘The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ marks the 68th anniversary of the periodical’s first publication. To mark the occasion they have published ‘The Hermit Of Houston’, the first piece of SF to be produced by genre legend Samuel R. Delany in a decade, as well as being his first story to appear in MoF&SF in exactly forty years! More on that novelette later. Alongside it are two other novelettes, eleven short stories and all the usual non-fiction. As I’m late with this review, I’m going to focus on highlights this time, rather than talking about every single piece.
My favourite story this time was the SF novelette, ‘Children Of Xanadu’. Amazingly, this is the first piece by author Juan Paulo Rafols to have been published professionally, although you’d never know it. The story is set in the medium-term future, some twenty years after China destroys the American navy in a huge military battle off the coast of the Philippines and becomes the world’s dominant super-power. Dr. Joseph Garcia is a Filipino geneticist who has been forced to spend those two decades working for the higher echelons of Chinese society, helping the most powerful families to genetically enhance the intelligence of their children in order to ensure that their dynasties survive and prosper. He hates his work as it involves experimenting on thousands of artificially reared babies to see which genetic changes are beneficial and which are not, with the test subjects being destroyed at the end of each set of experiments. Garcia is invited to Xanadu, the artificial offshore island from which the Chinese empire is controlled, to present to the top brass the results of an inquiry he has recently chaired into a recent rare military defeat on Java. His findings suggest that the Javanese resistance have found a way to beat the Chinese at their own game. However, Garcia has an ulterior motive behind his visit to Xanadu, as his superiors are about to find out. The world-building in this story is extremely convincing, quickly engaging the reader in a future world order very unlike that of the present day. The technology and science is well described, as is the repressive social order. Above all that, though, the real strength of the story lies in the authenticity of Garcia’s ordinary humanity and, in particular, his slow-burning anger at the atrocities he is forced to be complicit in every day. ‘Children Of Xanadu’ is the longest piece in this issue but it never outstays its welcome, the plot effortlessly pulling you through the story to its dramatic end. I loved every minute of it and I hope to see it on many awards ballots next year.
Three other stories came very high up my rankings. Jeremy Minton’s ‘The Care Of House Plants’ is a UK-based, near future SF short story focused on the shadowy world of industrial espionage in the biotechnology business. Grayling and Linden are enforcers who have been sent to catch a young researcher, Sam Bendick, who seems to have disappeared with some of his employers’ newest genetically-modified plants. They trace him to his elderly mother’s house, where their attempts to intimidate the wheelchair-bound woman are less successful than they might have hoped. Minton is very good at detailed observation, which comes across not only in small, precise details of the house that forms the setting for the story but also in the convincing scenario he has painted of an aggressive biotech-based capitalism and in the gradually accumulating layers of the plot.
‘Hollywood Squid’ by Oliver Buckram is a short SF comedy story which pokes fun at the movie business in a post-first contact world where intelligent squid-like aliens have landed on Earth. Despite the aliens providing humanity with lots of helpful new science and technology, they are still not trusted by the general public, probably because of how they look. Tony Casagrande is a Hollywood director whose career is going down the tubes. He has pinned all his hopes on a new buddy cop movie script he has co-written with a squid called Eppie. The film teams up a human cop with a squid and Tony is hoping that it may be able to rekindle the public’s enthusiasm, not just for his directing skills but also for their alien visitors. Unfortunately, he’s forgotten just what a dodgy business Hollywood is, as he’s about to find out. Buckram’s story is silly, surreal and supremely fun, taking the mickey out of Tinseltown and alien invasion movies at one and the same time. SF comedy stories can be hard to pull off. Buckram knows exactly how to hit his mark and does it perfectly here.
Lisa Mason’s ‘Riddle’ is a short fantasy story about a struggling San Francisco artist who is dumped by his ambitious lawyer girl-friend. He goes out, gets drunk, fails to score with the bar’s new waitress and staggers home, only to find a half-naked woman hiding behind the bins outside his apartment. He lives in a crummy end of town, so doesn’t want to leave her outside. However, he’s also suspicious of being robbed by a stranger. Common humanity eventually triumphs and he lets her in for the night, only to find out that she’s a lot stranger than he could possibly have imagined. This is a well-executed supernatural story which brings a fascinating mythical being into a contemporary context and has a lot of fun with what happens next. The main characters are convincingly portrayed and the plot plays out remorselessly to a dramatic conclusion.
At the other end of things, there were two stories that left me disappointed. The first of these was ‘We Are Born’, a debut short fantasy piece by Nigerian author Dare Segun Falowo. The story is about Wura, a Nigerian woman sculptor who has tragically lost her first three children, all girls, as babies. In response to this, she goes out one night in a storm, sculpts herself a new baby out of mud and clay and miraculously finds the baby coming alive when it’s hit by a ball of lightning. The rest of the story recounts what happens to her and her unusual baby. My difficulty with this story was that it all felt a little like one of those dreams I occasionally have when I’ve eaten too much cheese late at night, even to the extent that when I finished reading it, I felt disorientated and confused, rather than entertained or enlightened.
The other story that didn’t work for me, I’m afraid to say, was the magazine’s headline SF novelette by Samuel R. Delany, ‘The Hermit Of Houston’. I was looking forward to this, not least because it’s not that long since I read Delany’s early novel, ‘Babel-17’, which I enjoyed hugely. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for this latest story. It is set in America about a century from now, where the social mores and rules are much more relaxed, and it follows the lives of an unnamed narrator and his partner, Cellibrex. My main problem with the story is that Cellibrex and the narrator are both rather dull men and, apart from frequent bouts of sex, they don’t actually do much of any great interest. On top of this, two other elements of the story irritated me. One is that when the narrator recounts how he met his lover, he tells us that Cellibrex’s initial action on seeing him for the very first time, was to drop his pants and invite our narrator to have sex with him. Even given that this future society is supposed to be more laid back than we are today, this still appears to me to constitute sexual harassment. As a consequence, I had a problem with Cellibrex from the start. Finally, my other difficulty was that a key piece of information, which makes the rest of the story start to make a little sense, is provided a few pages from the end, in an info dump contained in a monologue delivered by the titular Hermit of Houston to the narrator. This seems to me both clumsy and ill-timed. Of course, this is only my reading of the story and I’m sure that others will get much more out of it than I did. For me, thought, it was a massive disappointment.
To end on a more positive note, amongst the usual non-fiction articles, my favourite on this occasion was Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty’s regular ‘Science’ column, which this time discusses the science and technology of invisibility. As ever with these pieces, the authors manage to fit an awful lot of information into just a few short pages whilst remaining interesting and entertaining at the same time.
It’s pretty amazing to think that MoF&SF has been going now for sixty-eight years. On the basis of this issue, they have still got an awful lot to contribute to the genre. It’s a pleasure to acknowledge the high quality of almost all the stories here. I look forward to the next issue with anticipation.
(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 8.99 (US), $ 9.99 (CAN). ISSN: 1095-8258)
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