Monday, September 8, 2008

F&SF, July

July's F&SF contains nothing outstanding, but several pretty good stories. Some of the highlights:

"Fullbrim's Finding" by Matthew Hughes returns to his Majestrum universe. It's a Vanceian place—the universe is old and winding down, ennui is setting in. I read several of the stories set there, but lately the stories have failed to enthrall. This story fails to completely revive the franchise, but it takes a different tack. Recurring hero Henghis Hapthorn is hired to track down an errant scholar. He quickly follows the clues to find the poor man catatonic in an inn on a run-down planet. There are many catatonic folks in that inn being cared for by the proprietor. All of them came seeking truth, hoping to find it from something living in a high mountain cave. None of them came back whole.

Hapthorn decides to bite the bullet and go up to the mountain to see for himself. He of course comes back just fine. And he gets to tell us the ultimate explanation of the universe, including the explanation of human suffering. I admire Hughes for going all the way, for not pulling any punches. A lot of authors with a set-up like this would fade to black, but he puts it all out there. Unfortunately, the “ultimate explanation for everything” comes across as mighty cynical and just this side of trite. So, kudos to the author for being bold, but I doubt this one will stand the test of time.

"Reader's Guide" by Lisa Goldstein is fun. It starts off as a list of questions, the sort of thing one would use as discussion topics for a social Book Club. The book the questions address is obviously mediocre, and the question-writer doesn't hide his contempt. Eventually we get the story of the questioner (he likes to think of himself as a Reader), a person living and working in the ultimate library. The story is funny, and easy to relate to if you're a person who loves books. (We also get to sneer at crappy literature, and who doesn’t enjoy the pleasures of snark from time to time?) Speaking as a reviewer, I felt the story spoke to me particularly. It's nothing terribly deep, but enjoyable.

"The Roberts" (Michael Blumlein) is the main novella for this issue. It's an interesting piece, but it seems painfully naive. Basic concept: Robert is a guy who both lucky and unlucky in love. He lives a cyclical life: he falls in love with a woman, and riding the crest of love he becomes incredibly professionally creative (as an architect) at which point he starts spending all his time working, eventually losing the woman, losing the creativity, and losing work. To break the cycle he orders a custom-designed woman to be his lover (we'll realize this is not at all plausible and move on). (And let’s not think too hard about the fact that the guy solves his problems by creating another living being to fulfill his needs, instead of maybe examining his own problems—why is it that he can only work creatively when being loved by someone else? The whole story could probably have been averted by a trip to a psychologist’s office.) The new person, Grace, loves him even when he's working, but eventually he feels guilty for not spending enough time with her. He buys her a clone of himself, and so does she. So now there are four people: three "Roberts" and Grace. (I totally expected another Grace to show up eventually, but the author never goes there.)

So now it becomes a story about a polyamorous group, which makes it pretty shocking when the original Robert gets upset that Grace is having sex with the other Roberts. Really, he somehow thought that wasn't going to happen? Idiot. Basically the whole thing gets resolved rather tritely, with the two new Roberts forming a couple and the original Robert and Grace forming another, and going their separate ways. It would have been more interesting to see them work out their problems and form a stable group; some people can make that sort of thing work, after all.

Another troubling thing is that the author brings up rather heavy-handed stereotypes of manliness and femininity, and doesn't challenge them in any way. Some examples:
“He was raised by his mother, who adored him, and he learned, as many sons do, that love bears the face and the stamp of a woman.”

“Unlike many men, he did not despise or fear women, but rather he exalted them, on the whole a rather more forgivable offense.”

“Robert not only liked the idea of women, he liked the fact of them, he liked to be around them and beside them and face to face with them, he liked their company, their loving nature, their adaptability, their strength, their subtlety of thought. Women were the brick and mortar, the bedrock, of his world.”

“Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, Grace—with all the wisdom, incentive and desire of a woman put on Earth to love her man and to help him in times of trouble, a woman with a job to do, a woman, like all the best women, without a selfish bone in her body—was hatching a birthday plan of her own.”

“No. 3 [created by Grace] was more talkative than 1 or 2. He was more accomodating, more domestic, more attuned to others than himself. Good for a chat over tea or coffee. Good for a drive. Good for watching TV sit-coms or dramas with.”

“No. 2 [created by Robert] was more project-oriented. He liked to do things more than talk about them. He had ambitions. He liked to stay busy. Barely a day went by that he didn’t wake up with a plan.”
This is all so exaggerated that I figured it must be satirical. I kept expecting an inversion or some other subversion, but he appears to use them unironically. Perhaps that's part of an overall strategy of simplifying, but all the simplifying makes for a much weaker story. Still, I'd recommend folks read this one and see what you think of it—I'm sure opinions will vary.

The last story of note is "Poison Victory" by Albert E. Cowdrey. Cowdrey appears to be working through examinations of human evil (see "The Overseer"), so it actually makes sense for him to turn to the Nazis. Here he uses an alternate history where the Germans didn't lose Stalingrad, more or less conquered Russia, and haven't been beaten by 1949 as Hitler is about to die of more or less natural causes. He continues the theme that evil and good are intensely personal—and that the banality of evil can capture almost anyone when it's both easier and more profitable than do-gooding. It's not a particularly great alt-history, and it doesn't have anywhere near the verve that Cowdry's work set in the American South has. It's interesting, and good enough, but compared to some of the author's other work it's ultimately disappointing.

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