Review: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, August/September 2009

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August/September 2009

Review by Paula R. Stiles

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, vol. 117, no 1&2, Aug/Sept 2009. New York: Spilogale Inc., 2009. 256pp. $6.50. ISSN#: 1095-8258.

Fantasy & Science Fiction isn’t my favorite publication in speculative fiction. Too often, it tends toward an uncritical nostalgia typical of the original Twilight Zone at its cheesiest. What I mainly remember from the last time I picked up the magazine was thinking, “Does the world really need one more whimsical fantasy about baseball?” And that’s coming from someone who cheered when the family team (Red Sox) finally broke its losing streak, was once in Little League and thinks Bull Durham is one of the best comedies ever made.

Nevertheless, when I saw the offer go out on Twitter of a free issue in the new bimonthly format in exchange for blogging about it (yes, this reviewer will blog for reading material), I jumped right on it. I’d jumped on the last offer, too, but hadn’t quite made it. This time, I was successful. F&SF, for all its faults, is one of the last big three print SF magazines, which means that the names are famous, the stories are at least well-written, the columns are worth reading, and the copyediting is literate.

Ironically, I liked the nonfiction in this issue the best. Chief editor since forever now, Gordon Van Gelder, kicks things off with a column explaining how the magazine has been dealing with the logistics of switching to a much-larger bimonthly format. It’s no secret the ‘zine did this to save on printing costs. However, the big news Van Gelder springs on us is that F&SF is starting a writing workshop with Gardner Dozois (former editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction), which will supply some of F&SF‘s stories in the future. I’m too poor (and already involved with other workshops) to pay up for a workshop that charges, but this might be a good backdoor way to get into the ‘zine.

Of the columns, my favorite is Lucius Shepherd’s snark-on-high rant about Watchmen. Needless to say, Shepherd didn’t care much for the film, but even if you loved it, you should enjoy his review. He doesn’t skewer Watchmen so much as the hype surrounding it (okay, he skewers the film a bit, too). The rabid cult behavior of some fanbeings has gone mainstream in recent years. This means the rest of us have to put up with being lambasted for not fawning over film adaptations of stuff ranging from anything by Frank Miller to Twilight (ugh) to The Da Vinci Code (double ugh) to the latest Star Trek film. It’s not enough to be mildly entertained by, let alone dislike, whatever current pop culture phenomenon. No, one has to love it. It’s therefore a breath of fresh air (if you’ll pardon the cliché) to hear Shepherd refer to Watchmen as “bleak silliness” and call Miller and his ilk “the It’s-Always-Raining-Where-I’m-Drinking (high) school of creativity”. About time, I say.

Also intriguing are Charles de Lint’s reviews, particularly of two fantasy books set in post-Katrina New Orleans (Ruby’s Imagine by Kim Antieau and The Map of Moments: A Novel of the Hidden Cities by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon) and a new Robert E. Howard Mythos collection, The Complete Chronicles of Conan (which I immediately decided I had to have as soon as I could find/afford it). Elizabeth Hand’s review section didn’t do as much for me, but possibly because she seems to like magicians a lot more than I do, and because she expresses an intense dislike of Watership Down, a book I have loved since about age seven.

The fiction is more of a mixed bag. I’d say my favorite is Rand B. Lee’s “Three Leaves of Aloe”, whose near-future Indian setting reminds me somewhat of Swapna Kishore‘s work (though Swapna tends to write more middle-class, tech-literate characters). The exploited, non-western protagonist, Amrit, isn’t exactly groundbreaking. However, Lee’s even-handed presentation of her scientific macguffin (an orwellian child-control device called a “nanny chip”) makes Amrit’s decision a lot harder and more compelling than you’d expect at first glance. Lee also neatly connects Amrit’s dilemma (and the chip’s effects) to cultural ideas about Hinduism and Buddhism, especially the Hindu caste system. This makes the setting far more than a pretty, superficial backdrop to the plot.

I really liked “A Token of a Better Age” by Melinda M. Snodgrass, despite some serious historical/philosophical flaws. The story is a variation on an extremely famous early-Christian legend, but one that doesn’t get a lot of play in modern fantasy. The protagonist is likeable to the point where his dark fate, forecast from the beginning, is still a bit of a shock. Much of the story reads like the first in a series of his adventures. There’s also some nice sensory description and banter between the protagonist and his “slave”, the allegorically-named “Scientius”. I also liked the creepy undertones of Mythos (and C.J. Cherryh’s Gate series), that the ancient Mediterranean gods are dark Old Ones trying to get into this world and wreak havoc.

Less successful is the protagonist’s avowed and constantly-hammered-home atheism. It’s not the lack of belief, per se, that’s a problem. Even if it does undercut the original story a bit, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Legenda Aurea can get pretty saccharine-bloody in parts. What’s wrong with it is that the protagonist’s Ayn-Rand wrestling with his atheism is anachronistic and we are not given sufficient cause to believe what he believes. We’re literally asked to take it on faith.

Even though the protagonist is an atheist after seeing what Scientius has shown him of the world, he still regards Christians as relatively benign (albeit deluded). Pagan Romans, on the other hand, are portrayed as stupid, cruel, venal, and casually bloodthirsty. All of these things they may have been, but atheism was hardly the shock to late-Imperial-era, educated Romans that Snodgrass has the protagonist claim it is. Atheism and civilized mockery of the gods had been around for almost seven hundred years already in Greek thought, coming from the likes of Socrates, Euripides and the Cynics.

The first story in the magazine, “The Art of the Dragon” by Sean McMullen, has a similar theme (dragons), but treats it differently and not so well. The idea is great: a megamonster that eats the world’s artistic treasures. Megakewl. Things kick off swimmingly in Godzilla-movie fashion with a golden dragon, two miles long, appearing out of nowhere in Paris and proceeding to eat the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, the story falls apart as quickly as the world’s treasures with a dumb, anti-art cultists subplot that takes over like literary kudzu. The team assigned to finding out what is going on with the dragon spends half the story sitting around in pubs, getting drunk and speculating. This might have proved interesting if the characters hadn’t been flat cardboard, but… The only two members of the team that we get to know are the narrator (an annoying milquetoast of an ex-art history grad student) and the villain of the piece (no, it’s not the dragon). Said villain, an anti-art fanatic who betrays the narrator at the climax, is so obvious she practically has “Evil Art-Hating Luddite” tattooed across her naked butt.

Also questionable is the author’s shallow view of what constitutes “art”. Apparently, it involves pretty buildings, paintings and sculptures, all to be found in the West. And clothing, for some mysterious reason. Film, music, dance are all either mocked and dismissed as not true art or ignored. Prehistoric or nonwestern art like Stonehenge, Lascaux, Chaco Canyon, Machu Picchu, Easter Island, the Egyptian Pyramids, the Great Zimbabwe, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, none of these are mentioned, so I guess they don’t qualify as the author’s version of “art”, either. Eh.

I don’t think I’ll get into the pseudo-virgin/dragon angle, which sort of sets up the half-baked deus ex machina “reason” for the dragon’s appearance. It’s just too silly.

Bruce Sterling’s “Esoteric City” also has a nice idea. It comes across like Dante meets Fellini in Turin via Dan Brown. Sterling also seems to be satirizing Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. Unfortunately, despite loving the subject matter, I found the story itself too chaotic to enjoy.

Also of note is Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Bones of Giants”, a perfectly solid sword and sorcery (sorry, herofy) tale set in an exotic setting that didn’t really show me anything new. I’ve read a lot of S&S, so it’s hard to find new stuff and this didn’t really do anything novel with the “girl who was Death” trope. Nancy Springer’s “You Are Such a One” starts off promisingly by putting a menopausal woman in a situation similar to the tale about a living woman who finds she’s been haunting a house in her dreams, but soon devolves into something typical of early-’70s women’s lit. The rest of the tales were a grab-bag of things that didn’t really grab me. I could have done without the reprints.

F&SF in its current format is a big magazine, so even if you don’t love everything in it, it’s worth the money. It only costs $6.50, after all, which is a few dollars less than you’ll pay for your average novel. This issue will be on sale at your local bookbarn or well-stocked drug store after July 6 until August 31.

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IFPReview: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, August/September 2009