fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe March/April issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is worth its cover price for the new Peter S. Beagle novelet all by itself. In “Olfert Dapper’s Day,” Beagle demonstrates that there are still new tales to tell about unicorns if you’re a master of the short fantasy tale. Dr. Olfert Dapper was a seventeenth century conman who wrote books about the strange creatures to be found all over the world, even though he never left Holland – that is, the actual historical figure never left Holland. In Beagle’s imagination, though, Dapper flees Utrecht just in time to avoid arrest, taking flight for the New World. He winds up in in No Popery, in the “vaguely delineated colony” of Maine. There, he is more or less forced to become the medical doctor he has purported to be, without much justification. He particularly learns from an Abenaki Indian named (as far as the name can be translated) Rain Coming, who shows him various herbal remedies. One day, while the two are scouting for plants in the early spring, they come across a unicorn – and there begins the heart of Beagle’s tale, which I shall not spoil for you. It is enough to say that it is a charming and sad story.

Richard Bowes’s “The Queen and the Cambion” is a short story about help rendered to Queen Victoria of the British Empire by a certain wizard of mythological fame, sworn to aid England. It is a sympathetic picture of a queen who reigned for 60 years, but seems to have only truly known happiness for 20 of them, the years during which she was married to Albert. The story is a nothing more than a bon bon, but it is a delicious one.

“Twenty-Two and You” by Michael Blumlein, is one of a series of related tales Blumlein calls The Doctor Diaries. It portrays a world in which gene therapy can prevent a woman from developing breast and uterine cancer without removing her physical organs. Occasionally, though, there is a price. I greatly enjoyed this melancholy tale of how and why people change, this wonder at how a mind that so wanted one thing then can want the exact opposite now. Blumlein’s biographical note says that he has a collection of short stories called What the Doctor Ordered: Tales of the Bizarre and Magnificent coming out this fall, which I suspect will contain this collage of tales; I look forward to it.

The cover story, “Electrica” by Sean Mullen, is an epistolary novelet set during the Napoleonic Wars, told by an officer and code breaker for the British forces. Lieutenant Michael Fletcher seeks a new assignment following his traumatic experience working with Sir Charles Calder. Sir Charles had allegedly invented a new device for transmitting messages called an amberscope, which sounds to my non-technologically-oriented ears like a primitive telegraph. Fletcher’s assignment is to learn everything there is to know about the new device, and to pass this knowledge along to other troops. But there is more going on with Sir Charles’s experiments than a mere means of conveying coded messages; indeed, the fate of all humanity may hang in the balance. But then, Fletcher is not the most reliable narrator in the world, and it is hard to tell the fictional truth from the truthful fiction in this sly story.

Time travel stories so often seem to bend in on themselves, turning the reader’s mind into a pretzel as it tries to follow the convoluted realities. “The Man Who Murdered Mozart” by Robert Walton and Barry N. Malzberg is no exception. The protagonist is Howard Beasley, born in about 2042, a hugely rich but completely mad man who believes that he is exceptional, especially in his love of Mozart. He tries to master an instrument so that he can play his beloved composer’s works, but he succeeds only in torturing the ears of his very expensive violin teacher. So he takes the natural next step: he will abduct Mozart from his deathbed and bring him into the future, there to finish his Requiem. There are clones and poisons and purple spiked hairdos, all mixed in with the Sanctus and the dying man, spiced with the the concept of certainty and the needs of narrative. It’s a heady mix, and it might give you a headache, but it’s the kind of headache that’s worth getting. You’ll want to reread this one once or twice to see if you can figure out what has happened.

Robert Reed’s “One Year of Fame” is the story of a writer who has long since stopped writing. Now he lives in a small town that seems to be a mix of all the clichés of small towns in one package, complete with twin sisters who hate one another and a bar where everyone gathers. But the difference here is that, in this future, artificial intelligences have attained the ability to appreciate the best the arts have to offer – and they discover the writer who no longer writes. Soon AIs from all over have become tourists to the town just in the hopes of glimpsing the writer. But then – ah, then. The AIs grow up.

Tim Sullivan’s “Repairmen” is about a couple of men who are charged with keeping the different universes from colliding with one another. It’s a tough job, especially if you happen to fall in love with someone in a universe where you cannot stay.

“Perfect Day” by C.S. Friedman offers a look at tomorrow that will make everyone want to stay in the present, a world where computers live inside our heads and constantly give us input on how much salt we can put on our eggs – and report us to our health insurers, with an increase in premiums, if we disregard the “advice” we are given. And those computers are no less susceptible to viruses than our present machines, sometimes to terrible, if terribly funny, effect – like the nudie virt that makes everyone appear to be naked. Worse, advertisers have their noses in everything, dictating the route one takes to work to ensure one sees the proper number of billboards as well as the number of advertisement one must view on an e-reader before one can start reading the book (and I could swear that I read something about precisely this latter example in a blog this week). It’s a perfect example of science fiction that posits what life will be if life as it is merely goes on the way it’s going. It makes me happy to be living today instead of tomorrow.

Geoffrey A. Landis indulges himself is a fantasy about authors who can vanish into the worlds they have created in their books in but a few pages in “Demiurge.” I can think of a few fantasy worlds I wouldn’t mind living in, can’t you?

I’m convinced that it’s much more difficult to write a funny story than a sad one. Albert E. Cowdrey succeeds at that tough task more than he fails, but “Greed” isn’t one of his better efforts. His protagonist, Vern, the caretaker of his uncle’s modern-day castle, manages to outwit even himself when he gets mixed up with a fugitive from justice and computer crime. Throw in a strange reptile, the Ku Klux Klan, and a trip to a whorehouse, and you have a complicated mess that fails to coax forth so much as a grin.

“The Tortoise Grows Elate” by Steven Utley also very nearly misses the funny mark. It is one of Utley’s series of stories set in the Silurian Age, and depends on stereotypes of college students, female college professors, and others for the force of many of its jokes. It is saved only by a series of references to Jane Austen, who can improve almost anything.

KJ Kabza is tired of every genre with a “-punk” attached. He wrote “Gnarly Times at Nana’ite Beach” to prove how absurd the whole thing is. We therefore have here the only extant example of beachpunk. While it has some fairly cool ideas embedded in it, I found it a shame that the characters had to be so stupid for the tale to work.

The single poem in this issue, “Hanging Noodles” by Sophie M. White, is a nice bit of absurdist, even surreal, poetry.  Paul di Filippo’s regular feature, “Plumage from Pegasus,” is funnier than any of the longer stories that aspire to that status. The book columns by Charles de Lint and Chris Moriarty are informative and well-written. Lucius Shepard’s film column, in which he considers “Melancholia,” will make you want to add that film to your Netflix queue.

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  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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