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Fantasy & Science Fiction July 06 – Review

May 23rd, 2006

(Hyper)critical thoughts as I work my way through the July 06 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

As usual I am far more pissed off by Terry Bisson’s story than I am even remotely entertained. Flippant violence, a couple of punnish one-off raunchy jokes, and it’s over. Apparently (at least according to the little byline blurb), Bisson has made a series out of the content-free exploits of this Billy character. That is pretty depressing. Just think–that space might easily have been occupied by a hundred-times-better story written by someone with an unrecognizable name.

The Steven Popkes story, “Holding Pattern”, starts off with a pretty cool premise–the haunted, remorseless retirement of a plastic surgerized clone of a fictional South American dictator. To this premise, it adds quite a promising array of ideas about the natures of identity and memory and self-determination, which it proceeds to juggle bewilderingly in the air for a cycle or two, not unlike the bulbous unmanned surveillance drones that follow its protagonist about. Then it drops them all at once and walks away. Retaining this structure, I think it might have worked better as a short short. Unfortunately the story lasted just long enough that I was getting vested in the character, wanting to know what it was really about, when it ended. And I looked at the title at the top of the last page and thought, “How appropriate”.

It took me two and a half pages to come to terms with the odd profusion of esoteric vocabulary apparently intended to create a distinguishing style for a world called “Old Earth” in Matthew Hughes’ “The Meaning of Luff”. Having read neither any Jack Vance nor any of the previous works in Hughes’ series, I don’t feel I’m in the best position to judge his extensive vocabulary’s function as a unifying thread. I’m not sure that particular two and a half pages of self-indulgent overarticulation was the best way to start this story, but once the plot actually kicked in the language thing started to grow on me.
This was quite a satisfying story, actually. A fat, greedy bastard, given the opportunity to profit by divining the meager meanings of rich people’s lives, finds, instead of the despair that any person of even the remotest merit would find in same, a sublime justification for his own sorry existence. Surprising, profound, adeptly executed.

The same, I’m afraid, cannot be said for those byline bio blurbs. I get the sense they are intended to give me the sense that I am witnessing a slice of a venerable institution, a subculture all unto itself, and it would be a damn shame if I didn’t sign up for a subscription and join in on the fun. For my buck (or more accurately my withholding thereof), they are trying too hard. Case in point their sorry misuse of everybody’s (except mine) favorite SAT vocab word, ‘penultimate’, in their intro to this story. Rather than trying to impress me with how facilely you grok your author’s elevated intent, why not impress me with your discretion? Stick to the facts, and put them at the end of the story, not the beginning.

This might be an opportune moment to admit that not only do I not have an F&SF subscription, I’m only reading this issue because Gordon Van G made me a deal: one copy of the magazine for one blog entry. Matter of fact he even gave permission for said blog entry to include nothing more than, “I’m only writing this blog entry about F&SF because I said I would to get a free copy of this sucky magazine.” But I’m not that much of a bastard. Anyhow, it’s more my self-imposed shoeless poverty that prevents me from subscribing than any kind of literary-elitist grudge. What would all us aspiring short fantasy writers do without F&SF to aspire to?

Which brings me to “Kansas, She Says, Is the Name of the Star”. The headliner. I’ll stick to the formula and lead with the bellyaching. Yet another oh-so-trendy, oh-so-clever classic fantasy retelling with a twist. Grumble, grumble. My inclination would be to hate this story on that basis alone, were the twist not so very clever and so very well-executed. Unfortunately, I have a soft spot in my heart for Oz, and Garcia y Robertson treats the source material with such reverence, even while completely turning it on its head, that I can’t help but be swept away. He has recast Oz as an SF world, if the title doesn’t give that away. There are a lot of parallels to the original two or three Oz books, parallels not just in the obvious Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion vein, but in the fundamental themes, the mechanics of the world. And yet he manages not to take the metaphor so far as to wander past the brink of taste into aping. This world is a modern, distopian Oz that reflects our own world as much (and as little) as Baum’s world did dustbowl-era Kansas. And it’s a fun story to boot–not just some halfassed adventure plot thrown together just for something to hang this world on, but something with real characters and real emotions and real stakes. About halfway through this, I flipped on to see how much I had left, and found myself lamenting there wasn’t more. I thought this could have developed into a good little novella, at the least. But seeing how well-wrapped up it all was, and how delicate a line he was really walking between homage and overkill, I’m glad he didn’t run on and give us a Witch of the West and a Princess Mombi and a Gnome King. My only real complaints at the end were a wish that Garcia had lingered a little longer on the climactic rescue, and that he’d taken a bit more care with his description.

But I digress, as I usually do. And that’s as far as I’ve read in this issue so far anyhow. So I think I’ll break here and come back in a few days with more.

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1 Comment »

  • Jeff Howell says:

    Thanks for the review. I haven’t checked out this issue yet. “The Meaning of Luff” by Matthew Hughes sounds interesting. It’s too bad it takes a couple pages to rev up. I’ve been reading some Jack Vance and he has the same problem. But once it gets going it’s some real unique stuff I think you’d enjoy. Nice of you to write such a detailed review in exchange for the free copy. I also don’t have a subscription, because I’ve found the magazine rather uneven, but perhaps I’m just fickle. I look forward to your additional — and I’m sure penultimate — thoughts.

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