A review that originally appeared in The Fix #6:-
FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION – SEPTEMBER 2002
Edited by Gordon Van Gelder
Eight pieces of fiction, one of them a novella, three novelettes and the remainder short stories, and regardless of the magazine’s title not much that genre purists would regard as science fiction. Certainly John Langan’s novella ‘Mr Gaunt’ is an old style supernatural piece if ever there was one, and wouldn’t have looked out of place in Weird Tales way back when HPL was king. Briefly it’s about Henry, who receives a tape recording made by his father before he died detailing how and why he fell out with his brother, Henry’s uncle George, and the terrible fate of the cousin Henry never knew he had. Central to all this is George’s manservant, the sinister and eponymous Mr Gaunt, who lives up to his name in ways that defy rationality. The story is well told and holds the interest right through to the end, but at the same time it seems rather dated, with little in the way of plot surprise or anything to provoke the shivers it so obviously aims for. The kind of story that, if published forty years ago, might now be lauded as a classic, but as contemporary dark fantasy seems only derivative and written by the numbers.
‘The Majesty of Angels’ by Robert Reed is probably the best of what this issue has to offer, a novelette that name drops things like black holes and quasars, even if they’re only window dressing. The aforesaid quasar has wiped out all life on Earth and the six billion souls who suddenly find themselves with plenty of free time on their hands are taken to the next level by a team of dedicated angels. There is a lot of rich dialogue and plenty of nice touches of invention, such as having the angels dressed as air stewardesses and serving up drinks etc to their charges, but the plot has some curious anomalies, such as the fact that it’s ordinary people rather than scientists who pick holes in the explanation for Earth’s demise and despite the ethnic diversity nobody seems to have a problem with the predominantly Christian interpretation of cosmology. The story has far more to offer than not though, and if rather fanciful it nonetheless addresses a serious moral issue with the proposition that some people might choose not to go to Heaven. Another old fashioned piece, Albert E. Cowdrey’s story ‘The Boy’s Got Talent’ is far less ambitious, with the writer’s idiot nephew acquiring the power to pass through walls, a development that is fated to end badly, though not before we’ve had a lot of laughs at the nephew’s expense as he blunders from one calamity to another. An amiable and whimsical slice of fiction that most readers will find agreeable if unremarkable. In the third novelette, ‘The Game is a Foot’, John Morressy satisfyingly blends genres. The wizard Kedrigern tackles a locked room murder mystery, a story with some good characterisation and which plays fair with the reader in offering a solution that makes sense on its own terms. I vaguely recall seeing a similar plot device in an old episode of Jonathan Creek, so if it’s good enough for them…
Bruce Sterling’s story ‘In Paradise’ has Felix the plumber falling in love with a nice young Moslem girl and the two shacking up together, but unfortunately her father objects and in this version of the future Iranian security can do pretty much whatever it wants in the good old US of A, with the local authorities turning a blind eye. In the end love conquers all, but the story itself is rather humdrum and the instant love affair seems wholly superficial, while the backdrop, although convincingly realised, is never satisfactorily accounted for. America has similarly fallen from grace in Greg van Eekhout’s ‘Will You Be An Astronaut?’, which brings to mind Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels with a hint of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Earth is under attack from space borne ‘thread’, here called Asps and with sentience, while children are picked to train as astronauts and man the killer satellites that are our last line of defence. The idea is fascinating, particularly given the suggestion that the Asps actually may have our best interests at heart, and Eekhout’s oblique prose style infuses it with real vitality and freshness, making this short piece one of the issue’s gems. Esther M. Friesner in ‘Why I Want to Come to Brewer College’ has a homicidal Japanese water spirit called a kappa learning the benefits of an American education, a scenario that leaves a lot to be desired in the way of credibility but is so deftly and wittily realized that to complain would be churlish. In particular the way in which the monster is cowed had me laughing aloud, though I can’t see it catching on, not even with the Pratchett school of comic fantasy. Lastly we have Jack Cady’s ‘Weird Row’, a tale of subversion in which employees at a book mailing depot steal words and ideas to release them to the world, a passable piece on the idea that thought should be free from the taint of commercialism.
Book reviews by Charles de Lint and James Sallis, a film column by Kathi Maio and Mike Ashley shining the spotlight on yet another forgotten genre classic, plus a spattering of take ’em or leave ’em cartoons, round out the latest issue of a magazine that, if hardly cutting edge, as a minimum always comes up with some well rounded and entertaining fiction.