The problem, as I’m sure you’re all aware, is that there are simply too many things to read and not enough time. With every month that passes wherein I fail to get through the pile of Great Unread, another rolls around in which still more books and magazines are published and must be added to the by-now towering pile. (‘Pile’ is no longer strictly accurate; in fact, I have several dedicated to-be-read shelves these days, owing to the fact that the pile — had I maintained it as such — would have grown somewhat taller than my house. Or indeed, than Everest…)
The only solution to this (frankly all-consuming) issue, it seems to me, is to give up sleeping. That, or sample as widely as possible.
In light of this, I tried out two magazines new to me this month. The first was the August issue of genre stalwart Fantasy & Science Fiction. I found the stories on offer to be solidly entertaining, but — on the whole — hardly groundbreaking. One that truly captured my imagination, however, was "Another Word for Map is Faith", by Christopher Rowe. In a future, insular North America, a host of Christian sects maintain an uneasy coexistence, each trying to remake the world in their own (perfect, naturally) image. The narrative follows one group of devotees seeking out — and correcting — error in Kentucky, a scenario made all the more disturbing by the unflinching conviction of the characters.
The fictive faith is both amusingly absurd and disquietingly plausible. It mixes medieval-esque cultic devotion to facets of Christ (the Sower, Jesus-in-the-Trees) with elements all-too-evident in sections of US life today — blind fidelity to ideas received, rather than personally explored, and an evangelism that requires frequent demonstrations of piety from its believers, and creates its own ‘enemies’:
"Christians, there is error here. There is error right before our eyes!" Her own students weren’t a difficult congregation to hook, but she was gratified nonetheless by the gleam she caught in most of their eyes, the calls, louder now, of "Yes!" and "I see it! I see the lie!"
"I laid down my protractor, friends, I know exactly how far off north Jesus mapped this ridge line to lay," she said, sweeping her arm in a great arc, taking in the whole horizon, "And that ridge line sins by two degrees!"
"May as well be two hundred!" said Carmen, righteous.
"Penultima Thule", by Chris Willrich, picks up the story of two characters who, I understand, have featured in F&SF before: thief Persimmon Gaunt, and poet Imago Bone. Despite the missing backstory, I found the world accessible (if a touch generic) and the characters perfectly engaging. Willrich crafts an effective horror-fantasy around Gaunt and Bone’s illicit possession of a book whose words can kill (in entertainingly bizarre ways reminiscent of Final Destination). While the plot is relatively standard high fantasy fare — a quest to save the world by destroying said magical artifact — it plays effectively upon the relationship between the characters for emotional resonance. I was on less certain ground over the humor, however. Bantering dialogue I can enjoy, but touches such as calling the deadly book Mashed Rags Bound in Dead Cow, while undoubtedly amusing as a throwaway joke, seemed to me a step too far and risked undermining the ominous tone of the rest — at least for this reader.
Very small-press zine, Zahir, aims to publish material that, its editor says, transcends subdivisions of speculative fiction. Most of the stories in #10 probably come down on the literary/experimental end of the spectrum, however, their fantastical elements understated. The results are, on the whole, quietly impressive, although I felt David Rawson’s "Given up For Found" to be overly ‘fluffy’ in its premise, and clumsy in its execution (it perhaps could have benefited from a re-read to get rid of dangling qualifiers and occasional pronoun confusion).
Manuel Ramos Montes’ "The Soldier" is a simple, short, but very moving take on the old tale of the son returning home from war, with a devastatingly effective point-of-view switch part-way through. The legacy of conflict turns up again in the nightmarish "Agony of the Forgotten", by Jeff P. Jones. The structure here is more experimental — it can’t really be said to have a plot — and the psychological damage is explored more viscerally, through a sharp depiction of physical torment.
Face a plate of meat. Arms the color of chalk peep out from under the blanket. A magnificently swollen wrist. It throbs, grows larger with each slow heartbeat. A crack in the skin at the base of his hand oozes a gouty substance that spills like finely sifted flour over the blanket.
Again, the setting, purpose and time period of the war are left unstated, making the soldiers archetypal and letting the significance of their suffering reside solely in their humanity. At the same time, however, there is perhaps less for the reader to relate to in Jones’ story than in Montes’. Whereas the latter anchors his protagonists’ emotional dislocation in their relationship to each other, Jones’ "forgotten" men are as rootless as their location is mysterious. The response is thus more one of horror than pity.
Finally, Rob McClure Smith provides a complete change in tone with "The Clam", a gloriously silly two-page snippet about a talking Scottish clam that — in the words of the woman who finds it — "sounds like [it’s] been drinking".
The most interesting of the stories at Strange Horizons this month was "My Termen", by Eliot Fintushel (19th June). It is an SFnal take on the ‘secret’ purpose of the theremin, that electronic mainstay of many a soundtrack of visual SF. The story is told by Mikhail, an ageing (and, I assume, fictional) associate of the instrument’s designer, Lev Sergeyevich Termen. Where the piece really stood out, for me, was in its very distinctive narrative voice, capturing the rhythms of Mikhail’s broken English:
Men know him my Termen even today by reason of one’s Beach Boys. My baby has it good vibrations. She giving to me excitations. Also, has one not heard such theremin in multiple science fictional movies them? For examples, "Klaatu barada nikto." Woo woo, so forth. Here is one’s theremin. Such theremin is making in all cases this ethereal sound.
These are the scattered recollections of an old man, shaped by the painful dichotomy of his deep affection and respect for Termen on the one hand, and his former duty to spy on him for KGB on the other. The structure is, accordingly, far from linear. The emphasis is squarely upon the personal, emotional significance of Mikhail’s interaction with Termen, and much of the underlying meaning of the events alluded to emerges only by inference — leaving the outcome (suitably) ambiguous.