The September/October issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is always a feast: 258 pages packed with stories by some of the top talent in the field. It isn’t unusual for this issue each year to contain at least one story that will show up on the award ballots the following year, and that’s true this year as well. My nomination goes to Geoff Ryman’s “What We Found.” Ryman has been writing lately of third-world cultures, in such a way that the reader becomes immersed in the culture, surrounded by sights, scents, tastes and sounds of a world so foreign to a first-worlder that it might as well be an alien civilization. This time, the setting is Makurdi in central Nigeria, a city with air conditioning, solar panels, telephones with ebooks — and roosters crowing outside the window on the morning of the narrator’s wedding day. As Patrick tells his story of his strange scientific findings and their decay, the apparent effect of observation, he also tells the story of growing up with a father who slowly lost his mind and a favorite brother who followed suit. The tale of a family riven by madness, unkindness and poverty is sad but fascinating. As the implications of the narrator’s scientific findings start to seep through the pages to the reader, it seems that everything comes undone at the same time that it is stitched up. Only Ryman could have written this story. If it were the only work in this magazine, it would be worth the cover price.
But there is much more good reading here. M. Rickert, a master of the short form, offers “The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece,” the story of a man who literally paints corpses. He doesn’t simply apply makeup, the way a funeral director might, but making them an artistic statement on their lives. He lives in isolation, as one might expect given his profession. The sheriff who brings him the bodies on which he is to work, though, has a peculiar and uneasy respect for the man, even if he would not allow the painter to work on his own child — at least, not immediately upon that child’s death. The sheriff’s strange decision, and the corpse painter’s work, make for a story that is ideal for Halloween.
Sara Langan’s story, “The Man Inside Black Betty: Is Nicholas Wellington the World’s Best Last Hope?” is about a small black hole that enters Earth’s sky in 2012, settling in at about two hundred feet above Long Island Sound. Scientists squabble about how to get rid of the hole before it swallows the earth, but Nicholas Wellington seems to be the only one with a real answer. The story strikes me as a convoluted metaphor for global warming and the controversy concocted by those who don’t want to believe what the science tells us. It’s a frightening story, quiet as it is.
“Anise” by Chris DeVito is an angry story about life after death. In this case, that’s literal; science has found a way to reconstruct and resurrect those who have died, returning them to life with the use of machines that require constant servicing, flushing and refueling. Anise is married to Robert, who died some time ago, but now wants sex more than he ever did before, even as he grows away from her in other ways. Anise thought he was truly dead; when he died in an automobile accident, resurrection was far less common. It’s hard for her to adjust to the idea that he’s really alive, and even harder to deal with the way a return to life has changed him. What, precisely, would immortality mean for our relationships? And what perversions would people create out of their new bodies? Because it always comes down to sex, DeVito seems to say, and sex can be right next to ugliness. It’s not a pleasant novelet, but it is a good one.
Jon Armstrong offers a strange vision of the future of marketing in “Aisle 1047,” where price wars become actual wars. First, though, they go through a phase of advertising language as poetry, which strikes me as far more enjoyable. But since when is the pen truly mightier than the sword?
“Time and Tide,” apparently the last short story by Alan Peter Ryan, who died of pancreatic cancer this past June 3, is a sad story of a young man named Frank who is just about ready to leave for college. Frank either did or didn’t watch his brother Junior drown one summer afternoon a few years ago. Junior was always the favored child, but Frank didn’t really resent it – or so it seems. It’s not clear whether Frank himself really knows the answer to that question, any more than he seems to know if he truly let his brother drown without doing anything to stop it. But his father seems to know, and so does the huge, heavy piece of furniture his father wants to move into his room on the final night before he leaves for college.
I’ve never been a fan of Esther M. Friesner; her brand of humor is not my own. Her new story, “Rutger and Baby Do Jotenheim,” did nothing to change my mind about her work. It’s a mash-up of trailer trash with Norse mythology that misses the mark. Unless you find the notion of a stereotyped bimbo outwitting Loki to be hilarious, this is probably no more your story than it was mine.
“A Borrowed Heart” by Deborah J. Ross is another mash-up, this one of fantasy and romance with an unexpected denouement. The characterization is strong, even if the protagonist is the cliched prostitute-with-heart-of-gold. But the tale feels unnecessarily chopped off just when it was starting to get especially interesting. It would have been more successful if the protagonist’s early encounter with a succubus were more directly tied to the situation with which the protagonist is faced when she returns home to a father who had previously rejected her.
Several other stories offer fine diversion, but are not particularly original. Daniel Marcus’s “Bright Moment” is a predictable but well-written story of the human race’s first contact with an intelligent alien species in the shadow of money and business and a human need for space. Albert E. Cowdrey offers a fanciful ghost story in “Where Have All the Young Men Gone?” “Spider Hill” by Donald Mead is a mildly amusing tale of witchcraft on Halloween, set in a pumpkin patch that is the perfect setting for the uneasy dead. Karl Bunker’s “Overtaken” is a melodramatic and well-worn tale of human courage in the face of adversity; if you do not hear echoes of Spock in this one, you are not only not a Trekker, you’re not of this planet.
The nonfiction in this issue is up to F&SF’s usual high standard. I don’t agree with Kathi Maio’s opinion of Woody Allen’s latest film, “Midnight in Paris,” but I enjoyed our disagreement. She writes well about film, and reading her column always feels like having a conversation with someone who is passionate about the medium. Charles de Lint’s “Books to Look For” is as idiosyncratic as ever, right down to the choice of books for review. Michelle West’s “Musing on Books” is a more conventional — and better — look at some of the current offerings, though the time lag between reading, writing and publication is so long that the books West writes about were necessarily old news by the time this issue hit the stands. Finally, Paul DiFilippo’s irreverent look at Broadway theater in this month’s “Plumage from Pegasus” will make you long for an immersive theatrical production of Robert Forward’s Dragon’s Egg that uses CERN as a stage in order to create the massive gravitation necessary to the plot. Or not. In fact, probably not. But it’s fun to imagine.