The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2016, Volume 130 # 723 (magazine review).

February 26, 2016 | By | Reply More

The first issue of ‘The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ for 2016 is a relative rarity in that it contains no novella-length story. Instead, there are three novelettes, an impressive nine short stories and the usual suite of non-fiction articles.

MofSFF-JanFeb 2016 cover

Before I start on the fiction, a quick nod to Bob Eggleton’s rather lovely cover image, ‘Martian Vortex’. This is a retro-style picture of two astronauts on the surface of Mars, both focused on a dangerous-looking dust devil that has cut them off from the safety of their spaceship. Editor Charlie Finlay notes that whereas they normally commission the cover art to illustrate a particular story, Eggleton’s picture entranced them so much that they bought it from him immediately and then set about finding stories that would fit with it. In the end, they have included not just one Mars story in this issue but three, which follow one another at the head of the magazine.

‘Vortex’ by author and astrophysicist Greg Benford is a short story which returns to the Martian adventures of Julia and Viktor, two scientists who were on the first manned mission to Mars, as recounted in Benford’s novels ‘The Martian Race’ (1999) and ‘The Sunborn’ (2005). This story takes place several decades later and sees Julia and Viktor asked for their assistance by Liang, the leader of the otherwise aloof Chinese outpost, who is trying to explore the insides of one of the gigantic fungal life-forms that has been found all over Mars in underground chambers. While they are happy to help in theory, technological and political barriers stand in the way in practice. I thought this was a fascinating, complex story which exposed some of the human and scientific challenges that may be involved in living and working on Mars for an extended period.

Alex Irvine’s novelette, ‘Number Nine Moon’, takes a more pessimistic view. After nineteen years of Martian exploration, Earth decides that enough is enough and pulls the plug. On their final day on Mars, before the last rocket heads back to Earth, Steuby, Bridget and Marco head over to a newly-abandoned lab complex to see what valuable items they can steal as a leaving present to themselves. However, when the landing pad collapses under their shuttle as they are disembarking, a final unauthorised joyride turns into a potentially fatal disaster. Can they find a way to get back to base in time for the last flight home or will greed become their epitaph? Although starting from a very different premise, Irvine’s story shares with Benford’s story a focus on the detailed, practical actions needed to solve the problem that his protagonists encounter, whilst not forgetting to show us the emotional effect that the situation has on them, too. I found the story as dramatic and enthralling as ‘Apollo 13’ and enjoyed it immensely.

‘Rockets Red’ by Mary Robinette Kowal is an alternate history short story which is a prequel to her 2014 Hugo Award-winning novelette ‘The Lady Astronaut Of Mars’. It is 1974 and Aaron has won the contract to supply the fireworks for the celebrations marking the twentieth anniversary since Mars was settled. He has brought his elderly mother, now crippled with Parkinson’s Disease, over to Mars to watch. However, she used to run the family firm and still can’t stop herself from interfering with potentially disastrous results. This is a hugely enjoyable, character-based story with a surprising but wonderful science-based twist ending.

The first piece of fantasy in this issue is Bennett North’s first published story, ‘Smooth Stones And Empty Bones’. Seventeen year-old Helena lives in a God-fearing part of the mid-West with her mother, a witch. She is in the early throes of a teenage love affair but her girlfriend, Mariposa, is distraught due to the disappearance of her little brother, Javi. He’s been missing for several days and, given the cold weather, people are starting to assume the worst. Helena can’t stand seeing her lover upset, so tells her about some magic that might help with disastrous results. This story initially seemed like so many other YA coming-of-age fantasy tales but the magical aspects are handled in an original way and there is an unexpected ending which I felt worked brilliantly.

The issue’s second novelette is another welcome return for David Gerrold. Following on from his vampire story, ‘Monsieur’, two issues ago, ‘The White Piano’ is another foray outside SF for Gerrold and is apparently his first published ghost story. The core of the piece is a tale told by a grandmother to her orphaned grandchildren at bedtime to stop them worrying about noises they hear in the night. She recalls her own childhood, evacuated from London to Scotland during the Second World War and brought up in a big house owned by a rich German music publisher who emigrated to Great Britain because his wife was Jewish. She was a famous concert pianist and he bought her a beautiful white piano as a wedding present. She loved playing it but, soon after they arrived in Scotland , fell ill and died. Since then, her widower has refused to let anyone else touch the piano, let alone play it. However, when the young evacuee arrives, nobody tells her and being a keen piano student she pulls off the cover, opens the lid and starts playing. That night, she starts hearing faint piano music, even though she’s the only person in the house who can play. So where’s it coming from? This is a lovely story, full of period detail and the open emotions of childhood. I particularly enjoyed the word pictures that Gerrold painted in describing the emotions that the music evoked. It was also wonderful to read a ghost story with a happy ending for once.

Nick Wolven’s SF short story, ‘Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going to Do?’ follows the eponymous character around over a long period as he is repeatedly assaulted by a particularly violent form of charity fundraising appeal. Because he lives in a totally connected future, there is no escape from the intrusive videocalls that show him all sorts of war crimes and other forms of barbarity and then tell him that he’s partially to blame due to his lack of political action and demand that he does something about it. Is there any way of shutting the messages off? I’m afraid this story didn’t work for me, for three main reasons. First, the basic principle underlying the story is exactly the same as the one Wolven used in his last F&SF story, ‘We’re So Sorry For Your Recent Tragic Loss’, two issues ago. Second, the problems assailing the central character are totally unbelievable, since they are all-encompassing and yet he has no means of recourse and everyone blames him, rather than the perpetrators of the crime being committed against him. Third and most seriously, Caspar D. Luckinbill is not a sympathetic character, so after about five pages I didn’t care what happened to him anyway.

‘Robot From The Future’ is a short SF story from Terry Bisson. Beyond that, though, I can’t tell you much, I’m afraid. Although I found the story vaguely amusing as I was reading it, I couldn’t really tell you what it was about even after a third reading. Perhaps you’ll have better luck.

Leo Vladimirsky’s ‘Squidtown’ is set in a run-down, desperate future America where Texas has seceded from the Union to become an independent Islamic Republic. Johnny, a moderate Muslim, left Squidtown with his father a decade earlier and headed for Texas to fight against the secessionists, leaving his older sister behind. Johnny ended up in jail, minus both tongue and father. He’s just been released and when he gets back to his birthplace, he and his sister have a lot of catching up to do. Or have they? She felt that her brother and father abandoned her and she’s since become an important person in Squidtown as it tries to recover from America’s economic woes. Can they find reconciliation or is it too late? I really enjoyed the world-building and the development of the relationship between the two main characters in this story. On the other hand, there wasn’t much of a plot and it felt more like a slice of life episode than a proper short story.

‘Touch Me All Over’ by Betsy James explores what happens to sixteen year-old Hilil when the gifted weaver picks up an unusual glass knife from the rubbish dump behind her tribe’s dwellings. Some property of the knife transfers to her and she suddenly finds that everything man-made that she touches unravels and falls to pieces. When it becomes clear that the tribe’s priests can’t fix the problem through prayer, she becomes persona non grata and exiles herself. Can anyone remove the curse on her or is she destined to wander the countryside until the weather or a wild animal kills her? I thought this was an excellent fantasy story. Hilil is a sympathetic central character, the plot is clear and the story resolves in a believable and rewarding way.

This issue’s final novelette is another tale by Matthew Hughes about MF&SF regular, Raffalon the Thief. ‘Telltale’ finds Raffalon thrust, yet again, into unfamiliar territory when a routine night-time burglary turns out to be a trap. Before he knows it, Raffalon is magically transported to the middle of nowhere, where his troubles really begin. As he tries to work out where he is and how to get home, Raffalon meets some unfriendly villagers and a vague but very friendly young woman. Will his professional and personal skills get him out of this particular hole? I have to admit that whenever I see Matthew Hughes’ name on the contents page of an issue of MF&SF, that’s the story I go to first. I’ve read at least four Raffalon stories over the last couple of years, I think, and each of them has been as enjoyable as the last. The character is an eternal ‘Jack the Lad’, with the style and charisma to carry the role off. Hughes’ prose seems effortless and these stories always provide an interesting and convoluted plot that maintains your interest from beginning to end. ‘Telltale’ is no different and I enjoyed every moment of the telling.

Albert E. Cowdrey is another MF&SF regular and his latest short story, ‘The Visionaries’, introduces us to Jimmy and Morrie, a gay couple in their forties, who together run ‘Paranormal Services’. They are engaged by the owners of a giant forest in North Carolina who are getting increasingly concerned by reports of supernatural events taking place in one particular part of their estate. Can Morrie work out what is haunting the forest and, if so, will they be able to do anything about it? This is an enjoyable story with an amusing twist ending but I felt that it would have been even stronger if the reader were given more concrete details about the origin and nature of the haunted part of the forest, which came across as a little vague to me.

This issue’s final piece of fiction is ‘Braid Of Days And Wake of Nights’ by E. Lily Yu, which she has dedicated to prolific genre author Jay Lake, who sadly died of cancer in 2014, and to his wife. The story is about Vivian, a New Yorker who has been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer at the terribly early age of thirty-three and her best friend, Julia, who seems unable to come to terms with this fact and starts going to Central Park every evening, looking for a white horse that has been sighted there several times, on the presumption that it’s a unicorn which will be able to cure her friend. I had mixed feelings about this story. When it focuses in on Vivian and her feelings, it is excellent. However, far too much time is spent with Julia, whose response to Vivian’s plight seems to me at least, selfish and thoughtless. I would like to have spent a lot more time with Vivian and a lot less with Julia.

In addition to the stories, this issue includes two book review columns, some film reviews, a fascinating article on the science of climate change and a Russian scientist’s attempts in the Arctic Circle to do something about it and an unusual ‘Curiosities’ column on a 1962 novel about William Wilson, a seemingly super-human athlete who originally appeared in the British comic ‘Wizard’ during the Second World War.

There’s a good mix of SF and fantasy in this issue and although a couple of the stories didn’t work for me, I enjoyed most of them with the three Mars-based stories that opened the issue being particular favourites. So a definite thumbs-up for the first MF&SF of 2016. It must be about time the next one turned up…

Patrick Mahon

February 2016

(pub: Spilogale Inc. 260 page A5 magazine. Price: $ 7.99 (US). ISSN: 1095-8258)

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Category: Fantasy, Magazines, Scifi

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