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Stories in Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2010 issue

Stories reviewed:

Duncan: Amor Fugit
Cowdrey: Fort Clay, Louisiana: a tragical history
Sullivan: Star-crossed
Reaves: Make-believe
Bowes: Waiting for the phone to ring
Shehadeh: Epidapheles and the insufficiently affectionate ocelot
Rosenbaum: The frog comrade
Danvers: The fairy princess
McAllister: Blue fire
Lee: Class trip

Duncan: Amor Fugit

[Many embedded spoilers. Read the story first.]

Amor Fugit starts and continues as a lavishly embellished tale, with rich but never cloying levels of detail that immediately establish it as a fantasy; the detailed sense of place is almost never something that appears in science fiction, particularly far-future science fiction. The hard but not unpleasant life of a rural farm family is clearly and lovingly portrayed. It soon becomes apparent that the mysteries at the heart of this story will be those of the human heart, and specifically the question of why our narrator's parents live apart, with the father arriving to spend the night and the mother departing to return only the next day. It's almost like one of those time-sharing agreements divorced parents reach, though on a daily rather than weekly scale.

The title hints at the reason, since amor fugit is the Latin for "love flees" (or more precisely for this context, escapes us), something that comes to have resonance for both the parents and Ourania, the protagonist. The description of the situation quickly creates another mystery to be solved: when and where is this story happening? We have what are clearly Greek protagonists (they wear "chitons", and eat olive oil), but they're studying Latin. Initially, this establishes a presumptive sense of time and place, perhaps during the liminal period when the declining Greek culture overlaps the early rise of the Romans. But there are many hints something is wrong with that hypothesis, details that make perfect sense once we learn what's going on, yet which are intentionally misleading at first: Ourania's mother speaks of breeding hybrids from her plants, suggesting a knowledge of genetics far beyond Greek or Roman knowledge; she owns bound books, which would have been rare at best during Greco-Roman times; and she wears purple clothing, a color traditionally reserved for royalty because the dye was rare and expensive until relatively modern times.

Soon, we meet Aaron, an engineer, and learn the time is more modern: he reveals that Ourania's book is The Origin of Species, so we're post-Darwin at least, and names such as "California" quail in Aaron's drawings tell us we're probably in the 20th century; architectural drawings in his sketchbook confirm a time in the early 20th century. The compelling mystery that now pulls us through this story is the question of why Ourania, her father, and her mother are seemingly living as pre-technological peasant farmers and hunters—recluses, in fact—amidst the surrounding modern world. Duncan soon reveals that Ourania's father, at least, knows of the modern world outside the world she and her mother inhabit. Her mother soon confirms that suspicion, though neither is prepared to explain why unless Ourania presses them, and she's reluctant to do so.

Ourania, our narrator, is named after one of the muses, nominally in charge of the astronomy portfolio. The mythological tale told by her father is of the goddess who is Day falling in love with the god who is Night, and given that this parallels the visits by her parents, it resonates. It simultaneously suggests that Ourania may be the inevitable consequence of the mythical celestial union of Day and Night. But that idyllic love is disrupted when Man summons a beast from the heavens to chase them back to their duties. Is this metaphor, reality, or something different? Readers of F&SF will almost certainly have guessed the answer by this point.

Once we understand that Ourania's parents are the Day and Night of her father's stories, the beast invoked by mankind becomes both literal and metaphorical. As the inevitable and powerful march of "progress" that drives mankind ever farther from its mythological origins, it is a metaphor, but it also becomes the engineer's landscape-devouring, air-polluting train that embodies the metaphor. Ourania, experiencing attraction for Aaron and the first stirrings of adolescent hormones is both the literal teenager she is in the story, and the archetype of a mythological character who, like her mother, falls in love at first sight. As in a myth, this leads to tragedy. Ourania and her family are indeed living in a region of story that lies outside of time and apart from the "real" world, so it is inevitable that Aaron will go on without her, growing ever older and never seeing his would-be lover until the very end because their two worlds are very different and do not fully overlap.

This is not a surprising result, but it is nonetheless consistent and satisfying because it neatly ties up all those loose ends left dangling earlier. The tragedy, oft-repeated in mythology, remains poignant. When Ourania leaves her home to strike out for "the big city", it is both a coming of age tale (the young heroine leaving home to seek a new world) and an implicit question of whether she can bring the vanished world of mythology back into contact with the mythless and unromantic modern world.

The deliberate choice of present-tense narration for Ourania's world and past tense for the retelling of her parents' myth is a clever way to turn her narrative into something timeless, which reinforces the out-of-timeness of her story, while initially fooling us into thinking the myth is something purely of the past. It's a neat trick, without ever becoming in your face about the cleverness.

Roger Zelazny is my model of the perfect blending of ancient myth with future science or fantasy. The density of allusion and symbolism in his stories sometimes defies description, yet he still tells a compelling tale; the symbols are not overburdened nor do they overly burden us, and they never get in the way of character and plot. The trick in crafting such a tale is to emphasize the tale and remain rigorously true to the tale and its inhabitants, leaving the symbolism and other allusions implicit unless it becomes crucial to reveal them, and even then, never to overexplain. The sense of mystery and hints of something deeper than what we see on the surface are what makes the tales work. In Amor Fugit, Duncan proves to be a skilled and promising inheritor of Zelazny's tradition.

Cowdrey: Fort Clay, Louisiana: a tragical history

Albert Cowdrey specializes in what I, a Canuck who's never been there, think of as "the deep south". Among his gifts is the ability to establish a profound sense of place through judicious use of local color (hurricanes, snakes, bayous), a keen feel for the region's recent and past history, and judicious use of language, particularly French creole. His characters are profoundly real, in an every-day working class sense; they develop a true three-dimensionality, possibly because they are never the sanitized, slightly better than us characters in too much other fiction. Offhand, I can't think of anyone who blends these elements quite as well.

Fort Clay gets off to a slower start than many of his previous stories, which have such an intensely robust joie de vie that they almost border on satire; that's probably appropriate, since even at their most exuberant, those portraitures are a loving and not always particularly reverent take on the personalities of the South. Here, the portraits are far more restrained: the artist, Saffron, who's very self-involved and who only grudgingly comes to appreciate her partner in the story, the park ranger Doctor Corman. As the story gradually begins to pick up steam, and Corman takes her around the dying fort*, the two develop a rapport that becomes mutual respect despite their different backgrounds.

* Described in a delightfully insightful way as an "American castle". I'd never thought of forts that way, but that's one of Cowdrey's gifts: sudden insight.

Without ever feeling forced, the story develops powerful momentum as Cowdrey recounts the doom that befalls the soldiers who man the fort, and their struggle to survive the hurricane, providing a terse summary of their fate and then dropping just enough hints of what really happened to keep us reading to learn the truth. Gabriel Letourneau, the intellectually handicapped giant of a man appears to be the obvious suspect in the historical beheadings, and that's precisely what a logical, rational modern would expect to be the eventual explanation even though we have enough information to doubt this easy conclusion.

The story of the men in the fort snaps into sharp focus as its narrator, Corman, falls into the background with Saffron. Oddly, the story of the fort becomes increasingly more vivid than the present-day story. It's recounted as a kind of historical ghost story, but with so much more verisimilitude than Corman and Saffron's present-day story that it raises the question of why that might be.

[spoiler alert] When the answer comes, it's both surprising and (for those who know Cowdrey's taste for the supernatural) completely to be expected—in hindsight. Corman, as the source of nemesis, brings the (zombie? something stranger?) Morrow to Saffron's home and ends the story right there, leaving poor Saffron like a bird paralyzed by the gaze of a snake*, to await her inevitable and not very happy conclusion.

* Annoying science geek intrusion in the review: Snakes don't actually paralyze birds. My understanding is that like most predators, snakes focus best on motion, and birds that freeze in the presence of a snake are more likely to be missed and to survive its attention.

I've written previously that I don't much like horror stories, and this one is clearly horror because of its ending. Yet somehow it doesn't feel horrific. Possibly I couldn't empathize enough with Saffron to really care about her fate (she and Corman are backgrounded right until the end to emphasize the vividness of the historical characters), but I suspect it's more of a deliberate stylistic choice by Cowdrey: to downplay and understate the horror and leave it implicit, thereby making it more vivid. It's a subtle and effective technique, and executed by the hand of a master storyteller.

Sullivan: Star-crossed

In this and his previous story (Planetesimal Dawn), Sullivan has created an intriguing story environment: a largely metal asteroid orbiting the nearby (ca. 90 light years) star Gamma Crucis, which is a red giant in our universe. I chose the latter words carefully, since this asteroid is the nexus for some kind of spacetime anomaly, presumably artificially generated, that connects many alternate realities that spread through the multiverse. It's a lovely stage on which to present stories, because it offers a great many fascinating ingredients that can be mixed: multiple interacting alien races, the drama of getting stranded in an alternate reality and trying (and almost certainly failing) to find your way home, life in space, and others. It reminds me of Andre Norton's "exploring the alien ruins" tales, which I loved as a teen.

Sadly, that stage is not well used. The immediate problem, which nearly threw me completely out of the story, was the plot. The people of the base know, or at least strongly suspect, that there's this giant random anomaly roaming their asteroid. I can understand them staying to study it and the asteroid, but why aren't all new arrivals told about the situation during the standard briefing, even if only in the form of "we're not sure it exists, but if you see a large black hole in space, run for your life"? Why hasn't someone rigged up a detector of some sort that would warn people of its existence? That would be easy using purely visual means: scan the sky with an automated telescope, and when the stars disappear from the viewfinder, sound the alert.

You can hand-wave this by suggesting they aren't yet convinced of its existence, but the evidence of two Nozakis (one from an alternate universe) is impossible even for the most skeptical to deny. But even if you accept that the crew isn't ready to accept the anomaly as real, you run up hard into the second major plot hole: Why would any of the crew, let alone the entire crew, consider diving into the anomaly to escape the giant mining ship that appears out of nowhere? They know from the evidence of Nozaki 2 that you almost certainly won't return home again, and you'll die quickly if you find yourself on a world with no human base to provide shelter. The mining machine follows a predictable path, removing the surface of the asteroid like peeling an orange, so the simplest and most survivable response is to call for an emergency evacuation, then move all your survival supplies to the most recent place the mining machine stripped. You know it won't return there for a long time (until it finishes "peeling" the rest of the asteroid).

The writing pales in comparison with the previous stories in this issue, but it is clumsy even if considered entirely on its own merits. The author's choice of what to emphasize and how to emphasize it is awkard. There's plenty of background color, with many aliens and interestingly mysterious technology, that would let the author paint a potentially interesting picture. But there's generally far too little "show" and far too much "tell", as in the following excerpt:

"It was a gelatinous being with six curved horns sticking out at the top. Tiny holes ringed each horn; Wolverton guessed that they were sensory organs or respiratory organs."

The last half of the second sentence should be deleted without mercy. It's not unreasonable to show us the protagonist thinking about his situation, but readers will reach these conclusions without the author's intrusive help. If the author feels it's truly necessary to emulate the thinking process, it can be done more subtly by showing. For example (not great, but at least simple):

"Tiny holes ringed each horn; they pulsed at regular intervals, as if the creature were breathing."

At other times, there's insufficient "tell", as in the following excerpt:

"Now he was separated from the tower by dozens of species passing back and forth. Most of them wore pastel, balloonlike coverings, while others were encased in more elaborate protective gear."

There are dozens, but what are they like: Size? Shape? Grace of movement? Are they armed? Do they react differently to him (if not, say how they differ) or all ignore him (if so, carry this hint through to convey its meaning)? Sullivan effectively communicates the concept that they don't all come from this planet (otherwise they wouldn't need to carry their atmosphere with them) and that they presumably are familiar with many other alien races, but given the detail with which subsequent aliens are described, even a slight touch of more detail would be welcome here. For example (borrowing some of the author's style):

"Some of them were about his size and roughly his shape, but there were giants among them as well as tiny creatures riding on the back of a larger creature—whether a mother or a draft animal, Wolverton couldn't say. Most of them wore..."

There are too many adjectives in too many places—a malady I'm sorely afflicted with <g> myself, so I suppose I shouldn’t cast stones—and many are poorly chosen. A more serious problem is that the sentences don't "flow": they're frequently choppy and poorly integrated with surrounding sentences, and there's far too much passive use of the verb "to be". I don't recall who said this (Bradbury? de Camp?), but if you're not confident in your ability to make text read smoothly inside your head, you should try reading it aloud, paying careful attention to the punctuation; for example, when you hit a period at the end of a sentence, really make yourself pause for a moment. Better still, ask someone to do this for you. If the rhythm sounds wrong when it's read aloud, it won't sound any better when read silently. Fix it and try again until you get it right.

There are a few nice scientific details; the asteroid stripped of atmosphere in or near the sun's hydrogen shell seems plausible, the description of low gravity is competently handled, and the intoxication that comes with breathing pure oxygen is also a clever detail. But the latter reveals a broader problem: the aliens would never provide visitors with such an atmosphere because it wouldn't exist in nature; oxygen is simply far too chemically reactive to be the only atmospheric component. The broader problem lies in the rest of the science and in how the mechanics of actions are described; describing those problems would take an entire essay of its own. Both the science and the description of actions can be summarized in a single word: nonsensical. Would-be authors, take my advice: if you don't understand at least the basics of the tools you're using, don't use them.

When a lack of understanding of action is combined with overuse of the verb "to be" and "telling instead of showing", the result is embarrassments such as "the fighting was desperate" and "Wolverton dropped onto one elbow and swung his legs around" (ouch!) to trip his opponent. The second sentence at least has the virtue of being actively verbed, but trust me on this (as a former amateur martial artist); that isn't how you do a "sweep" with your legs, and doing it effectively is something that takes considerable practice.

Possibly the most serious problem is that the characters almost entirely lack affect (emotional depth). The most egregious example occurs when Wolverton sees his own alternate-universe corpse, and describes it with all the passion of a grad student at 3 AM counting his millionth ant to earn his research assistant salary: he is not shocked, surprised, appalled, crushed by the burden of his loneliness, or saddened. The fatigue from his exhausting and terrifying experience thus far could certainly explain this initially (i.e., Sullivan could have described him as being numb), but when he wakes the next day, well rested, how can he not react in any way other than to catalogue for us the fact the body is still there? Having Nozaki claim to "love" Wolverton at the end of the story is both formulaic and hard to imagine from within the context of the story; it's as bad as the most sophomoric of Rod Garcia y Robertson's excesses, but without the latter's skillful writing and plotting and clever descriptions.

I hate to completely pan a story, but it's hard to end this review on a positive note. The overall effect of Star-crossed is that an intriguing background and wealth of color are negated by the many problems I've catalogued in this review. This one is emphatically not up to the standards of F&SF and should not have been published in its present form. Because there are many interesting possibilities here, the editors should have sent it back for an extensive rewrite, with careful suggestions on how to solve these and other obvious problems. It's appropriate to encourage new writers, but their work shouldn't be published solely to encourage them; publication should be a process of helping them achieve their potential, and that simply didn't happen here. I hope this review will help Sullivan rather than discouraging him.

Reaves: Make-believe

I've met reviewers and editors who dislike any stories that feature writers as a protagonist or even as a significant character. Possibly they see it as too self-referential or too self-indulgent, or possibly it's just a knee-jerk reflex that spares them having to read Yet Another Writer Story by someone who took the advice to "write what you know" too seriously. I don't count myself among the nay-sayers. As a writer, editor, and friend of writers, I have firsthand evidence that writers are human too, and thus, fair game for storytelling. The touchstone for me is whether they're interesting humans. I'm less concerned with whether the author has something truly new to say; it's more important that they say it well.

Reaves tells a story that is nominally true, at least to the extent permitted by the writer-narrator's memory. He does so in a simple, unaffected, straightforward voice that elegantly recreates what he describes as (a really nice metaphor!) the "Bradbury days" of youth. That evokes so many rich associations (I read everything Bradbury wrote when I was younger, and it resonated remarkably with me) that it makes up for the lack of outright Bradbury flourishes in the writing. Reaves certainly paints evocative images, as in his description of the punched child's "mouth gaping, making vaguely piscine sounds", but he's not trying to out-Bradbury the master. Reminds me in many ways of my first published story, The Dead End Gang. In case you're interested in that historical artefact, blemishes and all, you can find it on my site. Reaves does it better. <g>

[Spoiler alert] The deceptively nostalgic start abruptly metamorphoses into a horrific ending, and not one you can see coming, although in hindsight, it's easy to see this as just another tragedy that strikes out of nowhere. That's real enough that the story is effective, chilling, and sufficiently credible to make me suspend disbelief and enjoy the chill.

Reaves makes only one mis-step, at the very end and in a single small detail: the "be careful what you wish for" words of the ending don't really relate to what comes before. The history at the start of the story is the tale of the children playing with toy weapons, wishing for nothing more than childhood games, and coming to a bad end without having deserved that fate; the children did not wish to become dead, so the cautionary statement doesn't relate to their story. The narrator's wish to become a writer began only after the traumatic incident in the story, and the narrator gets that wish; becoming a writer is his stated way of dealing with that traumatic past. Since it appears to be an effective coping strategy, and since context suggests the narrator has found a successful career as a writer, why be careful? He got what he wished for and it did no obvious harm or have future consequences. For the ending to be consistent with the story, the child would have to have wanted to be a writer before the trauma, or the narrator's younger self would have to wish (in the closing paragraphs) to remember what had happened and therefore to have that wish fulfilled in a nasty way. That isn't what happened.

The simplest solution, though not necessarily the best one, is to delete the last sentence; the previous sentence ("It's how I deal with it") works acceptably well as the ending. You could also try more radical narrative surgery by changing the narrator and his friends into early teens, an age when the narrator could have wished to be a writer and wished for something to write about—and gotten his wish in an unpleasant manner (reminiscent of the movie Stand By Me) that links the "be careful what you wish for" successfully with that earlier wish.

Bowes: Waiting for the phone to ring

This is Yet Another Writer Story, but as I noted for the Reaves story in the same issue, the test of whether I'll keep reading is how well the author does whatever they're trying to do. In Waiting, Bowes is using the character of writer to accomplish what the best writers do so well: observe and record the myriad details that merge into an image of something we hadn't pondered before.

Here, Bowes is describing New York's East Village, a place I know little about, during a time of radical change (the 1960s and 1970s); the details hang together well to produce an emerging portrait of this period and place. Combined with memories from my own rare visits to New York, he created a compelling sense of place and of how that place has changed over time. In the framing story, the narrator tells us of his rough and often bleak early life in the East Village, and how he has settled down over time into a more peaceful and contemplative existence. Here, there's a poetry to Bowes' descriptions, but it has a subtle rhythm. I had the impression of the kind of thing older musicians do when the fires of their youth are starting to burn low and they're taking time to ponder their "long, strange journey"; think of Eric Clapton many years after Cream, doing acoustic music like You Look Wonderful Tonight and some of the finest work he's ever done with a guitar, which is saying something.

The story within the story, a venerable literary device, is something else again. Much more Velvet Underground than Clapton, but now I've carried my music metaphor too far; The Kid With Sun in His Eyes is more like raw, undiluted Kerouac, with all the vigor and rhythm of the original dharma bum. (It's no coincidence that the band at the center of the story is named "Lord of Light", though there are other symbolic levels at play here.) This radically different style is every bit as well done as in Nick Mamatas' Move Underground*, and forms a story that is worth reading for its own sake, both because of its stylistic beauty and its narrative punch, independent of its relationship with the framing story in Waiting.

* Both stories are masterfully done, though the underappreciated Mamatas novel is probably of interest to fewer readers (the overlap between those who like Kerouac and those who like Lovecraft is probably small, which is a pity).

Amidst the poetry of his writing, Bowes has some images that stand out like broken glass in a neatly manicured park lawn, ready to cut the unwary: "private detectives making a living returning runaways to the families that wanted to destroy them", "prostitutes both TV and female", and the depictions of the "rough trade" of the gay, bi, and other street kids of the era. The styles of both the framing story and of The Kid are like the best music: they insinuate themselves under the level of your consciousness, draw you along with them, and plant some memorable hooks. And indeed, that "meta" level of description becomes the overt SFnal device that turns Waiting from mainstream literature into an F&SF story: many of the damaged and abused youths in the 1960s and 1970s East Village can see into the minds of the older men who are using and abusing them and others, and one man (Philip Marcy) is seeking to use their talent to transcend his life in some unspecified but very creepy way.

The story's also about the search for identity. Many of the characters have chosen new names when they felt it necessary to redefine who they were. Interestingly, the narrator does not name himself, possibly because he's at that age when (as he himself suggests) you're mostly trying to make sense of it all; he clearly hasn't succeeded yet, feels a bit lost about what his life has meant, and he may therefore find that his old name doesn't fit his present reality well enough to be worth mentioning. Like the other characters, his past is still a living part of who he is, and there's serious damage here that hasn't yet healed. The title of the story alludes to both the way an actor lives in hope that a director will call and offer a life-changing, career-starting role, and the narrator's own conclusion: he too is waiting for the phone call that will change his life, even if only for a day.

Powerful stuff.

Shehadeh: Epidapheles and the insufficiently affectionate ocelot

In Epidapheles (edaph = soil?, pheles = to help?, thus one who helps to soil everything?), Shehadeh cheerfully and exuberantly mingles aspects of Terry Pratchett's wizard Rincewind and his sapient luggage (an incompetent wizard with an unconventional but very useful sidekick), Jack Vance's Cugel the Clever (the kind of guy who never intentionally leaves the situation better than when he arrived), and a dash of Matthew Hughes' Henghis Hapthorn (lavish sesquipelianism) for good measure. If that description makes the style sound derivative, it's not: if not precisely "fresh", this is something new and entertaining in its own right.

Door, the invisible chair that accompanies Epidapheles on his peregrinations, is a sympathetic, phlegmatic, and eternally patient companion, with a certain melancholy thrown in. You'll get to like him a lot, even if he claims to be accompanying the wizard purely from mercenary motives (i.e., to be free to wander). Okay, let's throw in a dash of Brave Little Toaster too, just because. A door is sometimes something that you see through, that grants access to the external world, and that keeps that world at a safe distance. It's emphatically not the kind of protagonist you expect to leave its little village, find an enchanted sword, and slay the dragon, but sometimes you really do find heroes in unlikely places. Door is aptly named, and you'll miss him (her? it?) when the story ends.

Epidapheles makes Rincewind seem as competent as Gandalf, and his blunderings never intentionally improve the situation, though it's not because he's as malicious as Cugel; it's more that he's supercilious yet blithely oblivious to everything going on around him. Possibly he's just senile, but that wouldn't be funny, and this story is all about poking fun at things. Epidapheles sometimes has salutary effects, as in the present story; he saves the day, but not by any conscious design. More like by blind luck, and not without a certain body count along the way. If God takes care of fools and madmen, Epidapheles is blessed on both counts—and trebly blessed if you include Door.

The language of the story is lush, and clearly chosen for mouth feel: "ocelot" rather than "cat", "cantaloupe" rather than "melon", and then there's "bloviate" and "mellifluousness". You'll probably either love it or hate it; it wasn't overdone, and I loved it. The humor is deftly handled, and successfully walks the fine line between subtly tongue in cheek and heedlessly over the top. Some of my favorites:

Though this is intentionally not a "deep" story, there are some nice driveby shootings that take aim at certain fantasy tropes: the madness and incompetence of kings, oddly named lands (here, the Plains of Smelted Terror and the Forest of Very Small Trees), and the dismal fate of an intelligent and likeable queen bound by the strictured gender roles of a pseudo-medieval society to a moron of a husband because, as a woman, she would otherwise have no agency of her own. It's hardly surprising that she forms a strong bond with Door, who finds himself in much the same predicament: both appear to be nothing more than a piece of furniture that you sit on, and possibly admire for its beauty.

Lots of fun, a distinctive voice, and I very much hope we'll see more in the same vein by this author.

Rosenbaum: The frog comrade

Fairy tales are often treated dismissively, as things for children, by those who don't know any better. But like fables and proverbs, fairy tales survive in various forms because they often embed considerable wisdom beneath a deceptively simple story. One thing they do particularly well is allow an author to preach without seeming preachy—at least, if they're as well done as this one was.

In The Frog Comrade, Rosenbaum takes the traditional fable of The Frog Prince and riffs on it as a way to explore socialist revolution, as in the Russian and Chinese flavors, with dissenters and members of the old regime banished to labor camps in the hope they'll die quietly where nobody will notice. (On the one hand, the story seems more eastern European in flavor, possibly because it explicitly references kings, queens, and princesses, but these titles also function symbolically whether or not they are also literal. On the other hand, the born-again capitalism after the old new regime is overthrown seems more like modern China.)

The princess who is the focal character is oddly passive, possibly because passivity has been conditioned into her by her forced confinement over many years. She mostly reacts to events around her right up to the end of the story, when she finally takes it upon herself to act. She's clever enough, but not stunningly so; in many ways, the frog is the story's real protagonist and the princess is only her mirror. The use of the frog as protagonist is interesting, because the frog turns out to be (no spoiler here) a human in frog form. In that sense, by slavishly mouthing the old communist party line and dismissing the counter-revolution's nominally progressive nature, it is denying its true feelings and its true self in the interest of safety; it's also clearly denying its emotions and its growing attraction for the princess.

The frog's success as a politician seems on one level to be an exaggerated and trenchant take on politics (i.e., people will follow anything charismatic that speaks with certainty, without looking too closely at who or what they're following). But on another level, it's a sad commentary on how even repressive regimes are often remembered fondly in hindsight by those who are disturbed, frightened, or inconvenienced by the rapid socioeconomic changes that follow when that regime is overthrown and replaced by something different. In the end, I kept hearing the refrains of the Who's Won't Get Fooled Again echoing in the background of the story.

As one comes to expect from Rosenbaum, there are many subtle yet powerful touches, such as the elder sister (having escaped to a life of freedom outside the former kingdom) writing to the princess with advice on how to manage her love life; reading between the lines, life clearly isn't necessarily any happier in the free world, with many sacrifices and accommodations required just to survive. It's telling that the older sister chose the hat of invisibility over the talking frog, and took the easy way out (i.e., escaping rather than staying to endure). The description of the prisoners embracing the world outside their place of confinement when they are finally released is also touchingly done, and rings very true.

[Spoiler alert] Whether the frog's fondness for the princess is more than just a friendship that has evolved over many years is left ambiguous at the end; choosing to make the frog female suggests the possibility of lesbianism in a way that really doesn't resolve or build on anything that has come before. I'm not sure that this ambiguity is useful or effective, but this is a complex story, with multiple levels of meaning, and will take considerable additional pondering before I'm sure I really understood all the nuances.

Danvers: The fairy princess

In this story, Danvers creates perhaps the most sympathetic unsympathetic character you'll ever meet, all within a few short initial paragraphs: she's left her husband and young child (boo, hiss!), lost her lover (sadness!), and is now working in a deeply skeevy* form of employment, namely programming and renting out sex robots called "screwbots". For the innocent, a technology note: these things really do exist already, though they're quite primitive compared with what they'll become.

* For the record, I'm generally neutral about the sex trade. I find it sad that we live in a world where people need to pay for sex, and I'm apalled at how badly sex workers are treated both by the police and by the people who exploit them. But on the other hand, I'm largely pro–sex worker; they do a difficult and (sadly) necessary job. Here, the creepy factor comes from the fact that the robots have personalities, and may thus be more like intelligent entities than they are like software.

[Spoiler alert, though probably not a surprise] Indeed, the robots turn out to be sentient, and there's a clear parallel with the "dolls" in Joss Wedon's Dollhouse series: the screwbots even have their memories wiped at the end of each assignment, yet unsurprisingly, the technique is not perfect and some memories linger. As a result, the "indistinguishable from human" screwbots truly become human, or something close enough as to make no difference. They even have the same drugged kind of sweetness that Wedon's dolls have between missions, though Danvers avoids the over-the-top excesses of Dollhouse.

Danvers has a gift for style, with fluid, easy writing that draws you efficiently and comfortably through the story. He has an often excellent grasp of word choice and metaphor. A few examples include "his voice is so soft you could cradle a baby in it", "eyes like a Sunday school Jesus", and "I'm burning a few bridges here. I have no small expertise in such arson." Better still, he resisted the temptation to name the sex robots "ho'bots", something that would have gotten a chuckle and thoroughly disrupted the tone of the story. Why "screwbot" seems more appropriate I cannot say; out of context, it seems an awkward word, yet it fits the narrator's tone perfectly.

Danvers uses his style and metaphor toolkit skillfully, and neither tool comes to the forefront and shouts "look at me!", with one exception: mentioning the narrator looking for the planet Venus in the heavens. On the one hand, Venus is the goddess of love, which is clearly appropriate in an ironic manner for the screwbots and in a very non-ironic manner for the humans they become; on the other, it is symbolic of the "morningstar", and thus a symbol for Lucifer, who brings both light and evil into the human world (depending on which mythological tradition you follow). This is a minor blemish on an otherwise fine tale; I would have counseled the author to omit Venus, but it's not a serious flaw.

Maybe it's just my Galahad gene kicking in again and making me want to rescue a damsel in (emotional) distress, but I really came to like the narrator. (On second thought, maybe that should be "Gawaine gene"; Galahad is far too pure for me to play him even on the Internet. <g>) Yes, I'm old-fashioned chauvinistic that way; I cope with it, mostly. <g> But I also increasingly felt empathy and sadness for the narrator and her emotional withdrawal, while recognizing that there was someone very likeable trapped beneath that wall of emotional ice. I suspect she's more Cinderella than the "fairy princess" of the story's title, however. In the end, I was pleased to see the story end happily (or at least with the suggestion of future happiness) for the narrator, and didn't find it at all cloying or trite.

Unfortunately, I'm fairly certain the story won't end happily for the screwbots. After having been used and discarded, which seems more likely than the notion that each will find a happy ending with the humans who take them home, many will end up on the streets, and in the absence of a corporate sugar daddy to protect them, many will be abused (even tortured) by their newfound human companions. Many, perhaps most, will be captured and returned to the company that "built" them; initially, like any other slaves, they will be seen as property under the law, not as intelligent beings or even humans. I'd dearly love to see Danvers follow their story in future installments in this series; given his skillful writing, the emotional honesty of his portrayal of the characters, and the larger social implications of the screwbot concept he's introduced, there would be an enormous amount of literary, emotional, and SFnal interest in those stories.

McAllister: Blue fire

This story is a relative rarity, as it's one of the few SF/F stories I can recall that treats religion (and particularly a conservative religion) with anything like respect, without failing to acknowledge that the Catholic church has always been about temporal power as much as it has been about religion. It's also rare in dealing with vampires with both sympathy ("love the sinner, hate the sin") and insight rather than treating them as the sexual fantasy toys or violent action figures they've mostly become, yet without diminishing their horrific aspects. In so doing, McAllister brings something newish to the genre of the vampire tale. Lastly, he deals with some thorny theological issues in an interestingly SFnal matter. That's a heady mixture indeed.

The irony that both Catholics receiving communion and vampires drinking mortal blood have something in common is handled well, and with sensitivity. (My friend Brent Buckner, in his story Flesh and Blood (OnSpec, Fall 1991) handled this notion brilliantly and poignantly.) There are many other small wisdoms in the story, including the unreliability of memory and the importance of the fire the dying Pope lights in the heart of the young archivist who is recording his story. In particular, the story helps us to remember that whatever we may think of a larger organization such as the Church, any such organization is made up of (and lives or dies based on the efforts of) individuals; it is not a monolithic entity that can be easily categorized in terms of its net karmic impact.

Fans (fen!) have some serious issues about the (ir)reality of religion and the divine. That's an argument for another place. Here, the important point is that we're considering a story, not reality; in that context, the handling of these issues must be true to the story, and consistent within the story. Blue Fire works very well in that context. At its heart, this is not a story about Catholicism (with which I have many issues), but rather about one man's desire to do what is right. Implicit in this struggle is the author's criticism of those who wonder whether the words or the principles that underlie them are more important; the principles are, and that point is clearly demonstrated without preaching.

Equally subtle is the unstated implication that by saving the Youngest Drinker, Pope Boniface may have precipitated the subsequent war between the vampires and the Church. Whether that is a good thing, or an example of bad things happening as a result of cleaving too hard to the orthodox doctrine, is a question left to the reader to answer. Clearly, unrepentant vampires trying to destroy an institution (the Church) that is itself hardly free of sin is not inherently a good or bad thing; neither is it inherently "good" to destroy that many damned souls when we have prima facie evidence (within the story universe) that becoming vampires was not their fault and that they could have been saved if, like the Youngest Drinker, they could have been persuaded to want salvation.

That the Oldest Drinker "should have died in another man's place, on a cross", according to the Youngest Drinker, raises an interesting and vexing theological question that, to my knowledge, has not been answered and that isn't really relevant in this story: If Jesus had not died on the cross, would modern Christianity exist in any recognizable form? It seems unlikely, since resurrection lies at the heart of Christian belief. Given that Jesus died a practicing Jew (celebrating Passover at "the last supper"), it seems more likely to me that Christianity would have survived as a vigorous kind of reform Judaism. So clearly the crucifixion must have been part of God's plan, not the evil that it is often portrayed as being.

Deep currents here that will disturb you if you dwell on them a bit.

Lee: Class trip

Lee has created something wonderful (in the sense of being full of wonder) and fun simultaneously, with an overall happy and comfortable feel that is all too rare in recent genre writing, which tends towards the apocalyptic. The story world of Class Trip is an extravagantly happy ménage of three intelligent species: we Humans, of course; the D'/Fü, about whom, more anon; and artificial intelligences (AI). They're all still trying to figure out how to work together and how to love each other's idiosyncracies, which is why referring to them as "Family" is such a clever description.

Throughout the story, Lee has fun playing with language and casual witticisms, such as when the Human teacher who leads the class trip in the introductory section explains why Human males <ahem> "eject their seed" (and clarifying to both the D'/Fü children and the reader that There Will Be None Of That Here), and when Pink, our plucky Heinleinian protagoness (complete with the trademark red hair), caught up in the midst of her confused progression through a dream, wonders "Who in hell is Dorothy?" Other examples of the fun Lee has with wordplay include "forgive me for saying so, as I am merely a Nongendered Outer Space Alien with no direct experience of such matters" and "do not soil your knees with prostrations of thanks". Added to this are sprinkles of several other languages from the refreshingly ethnically diverse class of aspiring companions to the D'/Fü, and a large splash of French, and the whole story becomes a tasty linguistic and cultural stew. It's all good fun.

The D'/Fü language clearly wasn't "fun" for Lee to create; I didn't attempt any rigorous linguistic analysis, but Reed has clearly spent more time than many writers spend writing their stories in an effort to figure out how to blend a mixture of Gaelic spelling, Hawaiian glottal stops, and Chinese tones to create an unusual and complex language. To this very amateur linguist, it held together well. Nonetheless, I came to feel considerable empathy for 6-year-old Linus (he of the Peanuts comic strip) describing his attempt to read The Brothers Karamazov and his eventual defeat, leading him to "bleep" over the unpronounceable Russian names. I bleeped a lot in this story.

The D'/Fü themselves, who go through at least seven life stages, seem unlikely biological creations, at least on the face of it. But anyone who's watched caterpillars undergo metamorphosis to become butterflies understands that there's no such thing as "too weird" in biology. (I've seen the metamorphosis dozens of times, and it amazes me more each time.) More to the point, from a story perspective, the biology must be self-consistent and interesting without flagrantly violating any laws of nature. Lee succeeds nicely at this, and has a ton of fun playing with this too. As Pink gets to know her blended Human and D'/Fü Family, for example, we learn that she "even engaged in crotch- and neck-sniffing with the friendly D'/Fü around the station", which isn't nearly as kinky as it sounds. Rather, it's a logical extension of learning to communicate with a species that communicates much by scent.

The story's structure is wildly erratic, with past and present intermixing with chaotic glee and neither rhyme nor apparent reason for any of this—until all at once, there is a clear reason. We learn that the most evolved (metaphorphosed) of the D'/Fü exist somewhat outside of space and time, including in the Tangles, which resembles the timeless Dreaming or Dreamtime of various aboriginal peoples (most famously, of Australian aboriginals). This, then, explains why Pink's story is not presented in any traditional linear order. Non-genre readers probably wouldn't have much patience for this, but for SF/F readers, it all makes a certain sense once you figure out what's going on. It also explains why Pink is of special interest to the D'/Fü: she seems to slip more naturally and comfortably into the Tangles than any other human.

[Spoiler alert] The story seems, for most of its length, to be little more than a cleverly crafted happy-happy joy-joy warm-fuzzy tale of growing symbiosis with wacky but lovable aliens. It certainly is that, and paints a highly desirable picture of the kind of future most of us would want to live in. But there's also a more poignant story here, as Pink's much older self returns and faces the decision of whether her long, rich life of adventure and intimate companionship with D'/Fü and others is sufficient compensation for the loss of her cherished first D'/Fü partner and her sacrifice of a conventional human life with a husband and family. (Despite Lee's loving appreciation of human ethnic diversity, we see no evidence that he has included any of humanity's sexual diversity in this world. I'm not pointing any fingers here—perhaps just giving a single-finger waggle, à la Stephen Colbert—but it's a surprising omission in a story that otherwise works so hard to be inclusive.)

In the end, Pink chooses not to disrupt her own timeline to restore that conventional life path, and it's clearly the right choice for her. Despite that insight into Pink's character, which is one of the few overtly profound bits, it's not a tremendously deep story. But it is a warm, cheery, inspirational way to end this issue of F&SF.



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