Having just come out of the 1969 Retro-Reviews, AND Black Gate Book Club’s 1981 Downbelow Station, I wanted to dip into the modern SF/F scene a bit before starting the 1979 Retro-Reviews. I delved into Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2018. I’ll be talking about the fiction and poetry in this review, spoiler-free, but skipping book review columns and such.
This is a somewhat special issue, with stories inspired by (or matching) the excellent Bob Eggleton cover art “Big Mars.”
“The Phobos Experience” by Mary Robinette Kowal
Darlene Ritika works on the Bradbury Space Center, orbiting Mars, in this alternate history tale. She is hiding a severe case of vertigo from her superiors and co-workers and gets called out by the Man to go to Phobos and find an entrance to a series of secret caves. They find a cave, but discover they are not the first people to be there. A slow-motion chase/fight ensues in the low gravity. With the heart of the story being such a slow scene, the story in its entirety seemed really rushed to me.
“The Prevaricator” by Matthew Hughes
Alphronz is a grifter, setting up complicated real-estate scams in this fantasy story. But the grift is complicated, drafting all the confidence men and renting a fine estate and good silverware and servants and horses and such. He hits upon a much simpler idea: cities and towns will often bribe a wizard to not live there — quite substantial bribes. He and a (financially constrained) wizard named Jarndycek come to an agreement. Jarndycek will provide Alphronz with enough information, even a little magic, to pass as a wizard’s servant for a percentage of the take.
I quite liked the way the magic system worked (or at least the end goal of what people who use magic is).
Jarndycek sighed. “You nuncupes have fanciful notions of what it means to be a practitioner.”
He went on to explain that it was almost every thaumaturge’s aim to leave this, the Third Plane to dwell forever in the Fourth, commonly called the Overworld, or sometimes, Elysion. But the translation required a hue stock of psychic energy, which had to be husbanded and built up over decades by arcane exercises of will and spirit.
“Controlling my athlenath [a captured demon] requires an expenditure of that energy and reduces the time I have for building up mana. As does cultivating my garden and every other mundane task.” Jarndycek leaned forward and said, “But if you provide me with gold and silver, I can hire persons to perform many functions, leaving me more time and energy to concentrate on the ultimate goal.”
This story was a lot of fun, mostly from Alphronz’ irascible character and Hughes’s writing style. I thought the end was a bit predictable, but ‘deal with the devil/demon/genie/sorcerer’ stories only have a few paths available to them.
“The Queen of the Peri Takes Her Time” by Corey Flintoff
A young hotshot hotrod racer seeks out grizzled revolutionary Renaissance man Faiz Mungummery Khan to help with an alarming problem. He has met and fallen in love with a Peri, kind of middle-eastern fae spirit, and managed to break his promise to her and is likely going to have his beating heart pulled out of his chest for it. Faiz M. Khan is the only human man living to have been in a similar situation and come out wounded but alive.
One of my problems with fairy tales is that people are told to not do something, and then promptly turn around and do. Flintoff gives one of the only (to me at least) plausible reasons a person would do such a thing — in that the Peri do not really have a sense of time like we do.
The old man [Faiz Khan] nodded. “ I thought I was going to die, too — in the hills above Ku’ufa, with artillery on us all the time. After I got hit, my promise didn’t seem to matter… You now, time means nothing to them. They live outside of time. When she returns, it’ll feel to her as if she just stepped out of a room, then came back in again. For her, not time will have passed.”
Faiz helps put together a scheme involving a djinn and a race through the desert. This was an excellent story, the middle-eastern setting was unique (and, I assume, accurate – or at least accurate enough).
“Freezing Rain, a Chance of Falling” by L.X. Beckett
Woodrow Whiting lives in the horrid nightmare dystopia that Cory Doctorow and Mark Zuckerberg have planned for us all, where his social capital (based on some kind of ‘like’ accumulation system) has been tanked by pushing a young starlet to attempt suicide and now his indie music/writing career is totally on the skids. So he’s gotta go friend-farm and build up enough capital to call in some favors.
Ugh… honestly, after like ten pages I just wanted W. Whiting to get a damn regular job. These stories where The Internet Is Very Important and the story has its own internet patois are just not my cup of tea.
I mean, I get it! SF has a long history of having the Ishtari parseltongue visit the ben hazerach to explain the droog rules of Quidich, but honestly, this was a little much.
For one slippery second, he thought of asking Crane about Jerv. Had he reached out? Thrown an offer of financial or emotional support against the global block Drow had put on all such comms?
“You have to be popular to do what you do,” Tala said.
“Yeah,” he agreed, kicking Jerv to the back of his mind. Popularity was the circular trip of the stroke economy: If your social cap was high — virtuoso-high like Cascayde’s — you could jumble together any old stream of atonal musical Allstew and the Sensorium would, like as not, lap it up like this viciously sinful chocolate.
I know, I know, it isn’t fair that I picked a couple of lines out of page 7 of the story… but the entire story is written like that except for the “Jerv” part, that was new, 7 pages in.
And this is a looong story; this goes on for like 74 pages. Or would have, had I not skipped it. Like I said, might have been a great story, but just not my cup of tea.
“Red Rising” by Mary Soon Lee
A sci-fi poem, perhaps inspired by Eggleton’s cover art. Martian revolutionaries think on their small war and those comrades they lost in it. As always with Lee’s work, this is worth checking out.
“The Adjunct” by Cassandra Rose Clarke
I had a good time in high school and college. Good memories. It has been a shock to learn that teaching high school or college is a kind of soul-sucking living hell. Or at least that’s what all the friends I have who teach indicate. In “The Adjunct,” there is the possibility that there is literal soul-sucking going on at Miskatonic University, instead of just standard higher-ed jackassery. So, if you like your Lovecraft cheese with a serving of whine, this is for you.
“Visible Cities” by Rachel Pollack
Dropping you into a fully formed world of sorcerer ‘Travelers’, we get the backstory of Carolien Hounstra. I enjoyed high school and college, I really did. Good memories. But for some kids, the really smart ones, high school was an unending soul-sucking living hell and Carolien Hounstra is just such a kid. I kind of liked this story, but it had the feel of background notes being fleshed out to a full story. If you are a fan of Pollack’s The Fissure King (from which the main character comes), then this should be pretty good for you. Otherwise, it is a bit of a Gulliver’s travels into the strange cities of the Travelers. Much like “The Phobos Experience” makes fun of its own slow-motion chase scene, “Visible Cities” does take a moment for the main character to reflect that this whole thing seems a bit too much about her.
I suppose my main problem with this one is that the character goes on this quest to find her teacher when he disappears. All fine and good, except that her teacher is invisible to begin with and goes out of his way to be enigmatic and well… her search seems to be less about him and more about her, because surely he could never leave such a promising student unless something was wrong. It never occurs to the MC to ask around and find out, you know, how this teacher (or any Traveler teacher, for that matter) usually leaves his or her students.
“Bedtime Story” by James Sallis
A dystopian near-future featuring an alien virus called the Billybot (or maybe people afflicted with it are called Billybots). A man ventures through a dying world to return to his hometown to get the body of his dead friend. And that’s pretty much the extent of it. A brooding (and short) piece.
“Morbier” by R. S. Benedict
Trish, an unhappy waitress at a fancy country club, meets a bizarre young woman named Mara at a farmers market. She gets into a relationship with her and manages to get her a waitressing job at the same club.
[Mara says] “The doctors think I experienced some kind of long-term trauma so bad my mind totally repressed it. And my brain filled the hole with false memories.”
“What kind of memories?” I ask her.
“Totally ridiculous stuff,” she says, with an entrancing blush. “Time travel.”
“Time travel,” I repeat.
“When they first found me, I was telling everyone I was from the year 2093,” she says, licking at her scone.
“Is it the shiny Star Trek future or one of those dystopian kinds?” I ask.
“The second one,” she says.
Benedict’s writing style keeps the story moving, exploring the humor and desperation of fancy-restaurant workers and the monsters they serve. Also, somewhat refreshing, the most horrid human monsters all seem to be pretty far on the autism spectrum.
“Hainted” by Ashley Blooms
Young Dallas’ coal-miner father has begun to change, growing increasingly irritable and violent. Things are so bad at home that she’s been staying at a house with a friend and the friends’ dad, who knows a few things about the miners’ life. Some supernatural things.
[Johnny] told Dallas about the haints. How the mountain did something to the men who worked inside it. It pressed and pressed and never quit, it forced the men to leave little pieces of themselves behind. Haints were remnants of living miners, little fragments of memory or pain that chipped away from the men as they chipped away from the mountain.
Johnny and Dallas go into the mine to find her father’s haint and bring it back to heal him. This was an interesting story, centered on the grind of responsibility and the encroachment of age and injury. I think (think) it has a kind of twist ending, which (spoiler), I’ll put in the comments. But even in her short foray, the mountain presses her and perhaps breaks away a little fragment.
“Broken Wings” by William Ledbetter
“Broken Wings” bookends the artwork-inspired stories. Set on the Martian moon Deimos in the fairly near future. Marcie works at Deimos Control and is on duty when the ship Nowhere Man comes out of space, its transponder mysteriously off and needing a remarkably large berth. Bernard Haugen, captain of Nowhere Man, and Marcie have a kind of flirty relationship, quite a thing considering they have never seen each other. But they have enough of a relationship that she pulls some strings for him.
Five feet above the floor, strapped to the ship’s lower utility spine and cradled in thick foam insulation, was a chunk of dirty ice about twenty feet long and ten feet wide. Two small robots clung to adjacent struts, their work lights shining on what looked like a carved stone column protruding around eight feet from the ice. The column was some thirty inches in diameter and fluted like a classical age column, but instead of running parallel to the axis, the flutes were slightly curved, appearing to twist around the diameter.
By the time Marcie sees the mysterious artifact, she’s already been drawn into a world of secret keepin’ and is soon to be drawn into a world of corruption in Martian space! This is an interesting story that throws some great curveballs, in the classic SF sense where the characters have to use the tools at hand and the knowledge they’ve gained to puzzle their way out.
As many of you may know, Bill Ledbetter used to be one of the sub-editors for Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, but he had to abandon us to pursue a growing writing career, and with his Nebula win with his short story “The Long Fall Up,” his audio book “Level Five” and “Broken Wings,” I’d say he’s off to a great start.
Adrian Simmons is an editor for Heroic Fantasy Quarterly—which is now rockin’ a Patreon Campaign. Help us get to the next level!