Filler content with flesh and blood

A magazine review that originally appeared in The Fix #1:-

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

Flesh & Blood has to be one of the smartest magazines currently doing the rounds, with design and production values that put most UK publications in the shade. Just a brief flick through its pages demonstrates how much thought and care has gone into this aspect of the magazine, with large, typo free print and clear, spacious layout, plus a generous and diverse selection of artwork from the likes of Jeffrey Thomas, Julia Morgan Scott and Colleen Crary. On the other hand you might argue that with large print and all that art, also with seven of the fifty-two pages taken up by full page adverts (very nice ads to be sure, but ads all the same), you don’t get much story for your money. So how good is what we do get?

‘Tales of Dark Fantasy & Horror’ is the magazine’s remit. The longest story and also the most substantial, ‘Someone in the Fog’ by Gene-Michael Higney, has a woman writer coming to terms with personal demons, a crisis brought on by the death of an abusive ex. It’s a familiar theme, but here treated with a rare emotional acuity and going that extra mile to make the situation credible, so the reader can identify with and feel for the character. In a similar vein ‘Oliver’s Room’ by K R McGee is an enjoyable ghost story with a novel twist, a father willing to do anything to contact his dead child, thus putting the story’s focus clearly on the living and dealing with themes of grief and loss. These two stories are the most straightforward in the magazine. Those remaining are more in the nature of mood pieces, with emphasis on language and atmosphere rather than plot. At their best these work very well, as with Jeff VanderMeer’s overtly sinister story of a visit to ‘The County Fair’, which with its singsong tone of voice and clever wordplay taps into a vein of childhood fear and expectation successfully mined by Bradbury many years before in novels such as Something Wicked This Way Comes. Another highlight is the brief and fablesque ‘Autumnal Fete’ by John Urbancik, a quasi-nature myth that suggests themes of spiritual regeneration. Not all the stories work so well however. ‘The Storm Horses’ by Scott Thomas is a very slight piece about coming to terms with death, the mythical overtones not masking its essential lack of anything much to say, while ‘Nipping the Bud’ is the usual D F Lewis product (as opposed to those rare and very special stories of his in which everything comes together), from which, as all too often with this writer, you come away torn between love of the elaborate language and imagery and irritation at the self-indulgence and air of vacuity. Bit like life really, but that’s no excuse.

Poems by such as Chad Hensley, Carol MacAllister and Wendy Rathbone round out a package that, if it is perhaps at time a little short on substance, is always long on style.

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Song for a Saturday – Thunder Road

The opening lyrics here are sublime.

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Filler content with F&SF

A magazine review that originally appeared in The Fix #1:-

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

With fifty years of publishing under its belt, F&SF’s pulp origins are reflected in its production values, with cheap paper and a glossy cover that’s so flimsy my first instinct was to fold it over a comb and attempt to make music. Permanence clearly is not an issue. Having said that, in terms of content for money it gives excellent value, with 160 pages of text, and even allowing for postage outside the USA, for less than $4 an issue. And there’s nothing of the bargain basement about F&SF’s written content.

The full colour cover by artist Jill Bauman is an uninspiring shot of a space girl having a bad hair day. Interior artwork is conspicuous by its absence, unless you allow for the five cartoons by various hands, most of which failed to hit my funny bone. On the non-fiction side of things F&SF has most departments covered, with interesting and in-depth book columns by Charles de Lint and Robert Killheffer, a science column by Gregory Benford, and Mike Ashley digging into his archives to rescue another worthy volume from obscurity. The real star here though is Lucius Shepard, casting a cynical and world wary eye over the realm of film, a bravura performance that blends insight into popular culture with a corrosive wit to devastating effect, so much so that I almost felt sorry for the guys on the receiving end, but I guess Arnie and co can look after themselves.

On the fiction front there are five short stories and three novelettes, with the latter taking most of the honours. Leading off, Paul Di Filippo’s ‘Doing the Unstuck’ is your usual, everyday story about a Goth girl saving the world from destruction at the ‘hands’ of an alien who resembles the crowning glory of Cure singer Robert Smith. It’s tongue in cheek stuff, deftly sending up a whole parcel of genre clichés and fuelled with a gonzo inventiveness. ‘The Ferryman’s Wife’ by Richard Bowes is one in a series of stories about agents of the Time Rangers, combatants in a war being fought across the centuries. Anderson and Leiber spring to mind, but the vocabulary owes more to the spy fiction of Le Carre. Bowes shades in enough detail to intrigue and interestingly explores the relationship problems engendered by this scenario rather than taking the more obvious slam bang action route. Finally there’s the hugely enjoyable ‘Firebird’ by R Garcia y Robertson, a straight-forward fantasy set in a Russianesque world and packed with werewolves, witches, warriors and dwarves, a plot driven piece that’s delivered with exhilarating verve and pours a fresh coat of paint over old ideas.

The quality of the short stories is not as consistent, though they start well with Kit Reed’s sinister tale of a ‘Playmate’ who comes to stay, in which a mother’s ambiguous feelings about her own son provide an extra frisson of alarm. ‘Achronicity’ by Raymond Steiber has the interesting concept of aliens with no sense of time, but doesn’t put the idea to much good or develop it rigorously. Robert Sheckley’s ‘A Trick Worth Two of That’ starts well with a send up of the horror genre’s oldest fixtures and fittings, seguing into an intriguing discussion of what we mean by the term supernatural, but fizzles out in ‘and then I went mad’ mundanity, becoming as much a cliché as the things it parodies. More rewarding is ‘The Honeyed Knot’ by Jeffrey Ford, the most substantial of these shorts, in which a series of strange events with an urban myth quality to them are tied together by an ancient mystical treatise. This is a story that makes the reader work and effectively suggests more than it states, so that its events linger in the mind long after the final word has been read. Last and least, we have Thomas Disch’s ‘Jour De Fete’, a well-written but pointless account of an ancient ceremony.

F&SF is not a magazine at the cutting edge of genre literature, but there’s a lot more here to enjoy than not, and if you want quality fiction in an F/SF mode and at a bargain price then this hanger on from the Golden Age of magazines is still hard to beat.

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Trailer Trash – Winchester

With Helen Mirren onboard I am hoping this will turn out classier than the raw material might suggest.

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Filler content with indigenes

A magazine review that originally appeared in The Fix #1:-

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

Appearance wise, Indigenous Fiction is at the Colonies end of the spectrum rather than the Challenging Destiny end, but without that magazine’s defining quality of carelessness. Issue 6 comes with a black and red wraparound cover, a moody, art deco image of a nymph in greenery by Lauren Halkon. Interior illustrations are thin on the ground, and those that do appear have been supplied in house by editor Sherry Decker. The only non-fiction is six pages of reviews of Horror related material by Michael McCarty.

IF defines itself as publishing fiction that’s ‘wondrously weird and offbeat’, and if the eight stories in this issue are anything to go by Trading Standards have no cause for concern.

Leading off, Antony Mann’s ‘Green’ is a quirky tale of a non-conformist who revolts against the world of perfectly contoured and tended gardens. It’s written with an enviable lightness of touch, a witty and insightful blow against the perils of standardisation.

‘On Monday the Movers Came’ by Ryan Miller is a simple but powerfully felt story of opportunities lost and never to come round again, while Ceri Jordan’s ‘The Book of Forgotten Words’ cleverly plays with the old adage that knowledge is power by giving us a world where words are hoarded by the elite, a story that majestically slides through the Scylla and Charybdis of absurdism and whimsy to deliver something more moving and substantial than the premise might suggest.

Kathryn Roach’s short ‘Divine Nature’ traps a woman in a sideshow game to reveal how our machines are distancing us from reality. ‘Near the Dark Heart of the Sea’ by Scott Standridge has a Hodgsonesque feel about it, the story of a sailor abandoned to his fate upon the deep, the kind of piece where atmosphere counts for everything and here done compellingly well. Closing the issue there’s ‘Bat Flashman and the Boy Wombat’ by Geary Danihy, a story that’s as deliciously funny as its title suggests, an account of what really happens when grown men slip into spandex and go out to save the world.

Two more stories and five poems make up the remainder of a magazine that not only encourages high expectations in the reader, but has the chutzpah to deliver on them.

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Song for a Saturday – 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)

From the second album released by Bruce and the guys from E Street (and this 2008 performance is also one of last to include Danny Federici, who joined the great gig in the sky soon after):-

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Filler content with colonies

A magazine review that originally appeared in The Fix #1:-

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

Issue 3 of SF magazine Colonies looks half decent after a brief flick through, but closer inspection reveals that this is an occasion where first impressions are not to be relied on. In my copy the wrong author bio is placed at the end of one story and the title missed from another. Pages are misnumbered, borders go up and down like a drunken sailor or missing altogether, and in one place the text starts to fade away. As for typos, when on four separate occasions the author’s name is spelled differently in title and closing bio, while elsewhere the same name is spelled three different ways in as many sentences, it seems fair to conclude that somebody is asleep at the wheel. Admittedly some of the typos do add a certain charm, ‘rouge’ claim jumpers being marginally more intriguing than their rogue counterparts.

Unfortunately too many of the stories measure up to the magazine’s regrettable production standards. We open with ‘The Conference’ by Selina Shaw, a confused and confusing account of a super assassin on the job, where the plot’s banality is only excelled by the reader’s eventual indifference.

Fiona Avery’s ‘The Silence of Roanoak’ takes the interesting idea of transplanting the Lost Colony of Roanoake to a Martian setting (NB the different spelling), but despite the primacy suggested by the title this is tacked on as the final fifth of a story which up to that point appeared to be about something else entirely, and we don’t get a resolution to either plot strand, the characters decide to go off to the pub instead. There’s the threat of a sequel.

Next up is ‘G.A.F.F.E.R.S.’, a story that for triteness not only places SF back in the ghetto but tips it arse over apex into the river of raw sewage flowing beneath the ghetto. The asteroid miners have got tired of their sex androids. This is serious as, for reasons unknown, miners are the only fertile men left and their refusal to prime the pump and provide the new liquid gold is cutting into company profits. The solution: send a spaceship crewed by five gorgeous clones genetically enhanced to nymphomaniac-plus and guaranteed to kick-start any red blooded male’s libido. It sounds like something written by a ten-year-old Trekkie who’s watched the ‘Spice Up Your Life’ video one time too many. Humour might have saved the day, but there’s little sign of comedic intent. One can only conclude that author Tony Leather is a fifth columnist in the pay of dark forces out to discredit SF.

This is the moment when any reader not lumbered with reviewing this tosh would simply discard it and go do something else instead, which would be a pity as the magazine now throws up a few stories that, if hardly classics of their kind, are at least readable and entertaining. ‘Ice Cool’ by Vera Nazarian is the engrossing account of a spaceship crash landing on a frozen planet, cleverly told in both the third person and from the viewpoint of the Oracle who must convince the others that she knows how to save them. It has good characterisation, narrative tension, and some insight into the nature of precognition. Bart Carroll’s ‘Archibald’ is a wry and amusing story about a woman who uses an alien weapon as a stove, while ‘Sojourner’ by Jeff Cates is one of those tavern encounters so beloved of SF writers, well told and holding the attention. Finally ‘Playing All Sides for the Middle’ by Sean Brown is the first episode in a family feud type saga with a SFnal setting, a sort of Dallas meets Space 1999. What we get is necessarily back story, but the characters are well drawn and some of the premises intriguing, suggesting it might be worth hanging around for more.

Overall though Colonies is disappointing. With three issues under his belt, and other magazines from the same stable, editor John Dunne really should have his act together by now and be providing readers with something more substantial than this.

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