Review: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Sept./Oct. 2013

Atmospheric cover art by David A. Hardy

Atmospheric cover art by David A. Hardy

I wanted to like the current issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction more than I did. The writing is polished and there are some clever ideas here. That’s the problem: the stories are more successful going for my head than my heart.

F&SF has been around longer than I’ve been alive. It’s currently a digest-sized magazine published bimonthly. Besides some review columns, this issue contained twelve stories of various lengths (“short stories,” “novelets,” and “novellas,” terminology almost as precise as Starbucks cup sizes). While the dividing line between fantasy and science fiction is a slippery one, F&SF leans more toward fantasy, with perhaps three-quarters of the stories in this issue best categorized that way. Reflecting a long-standing tendency in the genre, two of the stories explicitly feature characters introduced in previous issues of the magazine.

Cleverness abounds; in fact the inventiveness and humor are the most successful aspects of the stories in this issue. We have time travelers who take a perverse view of slavery’s hiring practices (“Affirmative Auction” by James Morrow), a house that changes itself (“The Game Room” by KJ Kabza, the most successful story in the issue), and an encounter between Shakespeare and Doctor Dee (“Rosary and Goldenstar” by Geoff Ryman). A fair bit of fun.

But there’s not much weight to these stories. The longest story in this issue, Rachel Pollack’s “The Queen of Eyes,” is a fair example of what goes right and wrong. Pollack’s writing is smooth, the idea behind the titular character is a good one, and the protagonist (not the same character) who leads us through this adventure has potential. But the protagonist is bogged down with far too many references to material external to this story, and the resolution depends on a magical turn that seems arbitrary. It undercuts both the detective story structure and the emotional impact of a complex betrayal. I wish Pollack had spent less time letting her protagonist indulge in reflections on his past, and more on either building up the magical framework or the emotional development of the Queen and her family.

Cleverness has won out over heart. Susan Palwick’s “Hhasalin” is about heart, about tragedy, but we’re told of the tragedy, and her alien protagonist’s response seems more forced than felt. Robert Grossbach’s “myPhone20,” has a neat science fiction idea, but develops it from an outsider’s perspective, an annoying Luddite in fact, and in the process the story loses our sympathy. I’d loved to have seen him write the story from the perspective of the eventual victims. It could rival Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

I’m going after Pollack, Palwick, and Grossbach, not because their stories are bad, because they aren’t, but because they aren’t the stories they could be, stories that would have moved me. I suspect the writers could do the job, given more time to write and some more pages. There’s an entertaining and moving detective novel in “The Queen of Eyes,” a trenchant analysis of kindness, cruelty, and hope in “Hhasalin,” and a cutting commentary on our society in “myPhone20,” if they lived up to their potential.

It’s indicative of what ails this issue of F&SF that one of the more successful serious stories is the impressionistic “After the Funeral” by Daniel Marcus. It captures an emotional moment, but why and how that moment came to be is undeveloped, and meant to be. It’s not so much a traditional story as a vignette. One can leave emotions undeveloped in a vignette, but not in a traditional story. And most of what’s in F&SF are traditional stories that need more emotional development. Cleverness is fun, but unless it’s balanced with heart, it won’t stick with the reader.

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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2 Responses to Review: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Sept./Oct. 2013

  1. Judy says:

    Not having read anyof it; it sounds like fair commentary and I hope that the three authors mentioned in the second to last paragraph can produce more works with the needed emotional element. I guess sometimes the line between perfect and not quite can be a thin one. Article makes me want to read more Tall, Grande or Vente Sci Fi stories.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      The only other review I’ve read of this issue is uniformly glowing, and even calls Grossbach’s and Pollack’s stories Hugo-worthy. None of the three authors are neophytes; Pollack’s even won a Nebula, a Clarke, and a World Fantasy award. So perhaps my standards are a bit severe. But they’re my standards, and I have trouble living up to them, too, especially in shorter stories.

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