All of the stories in this issue are solidly written and thought-provoking. There was only one small disappointment among an array of excellent stories covering the themes of death and immortality, change and new beginnings.
The novella “The Evening and the Morning” is set at the far-future end of Sheila Finch’s “Guild of Xenolinguists” universe. The retired “lingster” Crow recognizes that his Guild has reached the end of its usefulness after fifteen hundred years of work, as has he after a much shorter period. Crow finds an opportunity to perform one last major task by returning to far Earth, the original home of the Guild, to uncover secrets from the distant past. Crow does not find the answers he sought, but he uncovers startling revelations about the history of humanity.
This was my first experience with the “lingster” stories, and a great deal of this novella went over my head because I was missing necessary background. For those who have been following the series, “The Evening and the Morning” ties up loose ends in unexpected ways, but it isn’t a good introduction to Finch’s universe. Crow’s motivation was clear, but those of the beings around him were not. This was the only thing that disappointed me in the entire issue, and it may not have been possible to add more of the backstory given space constraints.
“Scatter My Ashes,” a novelette by Albert E. Cowdrey, is a multigenerational family tale told from the perspective of a scholar hired to write the family’s history. Harry Angleton’s love of puzzles makes him the perfect choice to assemble the tale of this wealthy family of Russian immigrants to the US, still haunted by the deeds of the matriarch’s long-dead father. Some of the story is told through a long excerpt from Harry’s writings, tactic that distances the reader from some of the key parts of the story. Harry figures things out a bit too slowly; I wanted to grab him and yell at him a couple times. Worse, Harry gives in to his own greed for knowledge, paralleling the actions of the people he has been writing about, and must be saved from his own greed for knowledge.
The novelette “The Second Kalendar’s Tale,” by Frances Marion Soty, also has supernatural elements but is set in a very different milieu. It is a retelling of the story of the same name from The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night translated by Richard Burton. The original tale includes a captured princess, an evil djinn, and a prince turned woodcutter. Soty takes them all and makes them human, not just the stylized portraits of the Burton translation. The prince, now a wandering beggar (the titular second kalendar), tells of a privileged life gone terribly wrong, and of apparent improvements that result in even worse privation. Some of that is ill luck, but much is due to the prince’s own poor judgment, leaving the possibility that he may be able to redeem himself.
This is a very bleak story. Everyone is the victim of circumstances, of poor decisions, or in the djinn’s case of his basic nature. Unlike Western folktales, where the prince is restored to his kingdom and wins the hand of the princess, there is no happy ending here. Both of the major female characters die; there is sex but no romance. The protagonist escapes with his life, but nothing more.
Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” draws from Chinese folklore. Paper animals both frame and participate in the growth of the central character from a boy playing with his mother’s origami constructs into an angry young man who tries to deny his Chinese heritage. The long abandoned and now battered paper tiger returns to tell him what his Chinese mother, a mail-order bride from Hong Kong, could never say in person. The fantastic elements in this story highlight the other, the folk magic of his Chinese mother that he abandoned with his effort to fit in to American society. Several elements of this story verge on stereotype–the peasant Chinese mother practicing folk magic, the resentful biracial son–but both are integral to the story, and speak to the human desire to fit in regardless of cost.
“Botanical Exercises for Curious Girls” is Kali Wallace’s first published fiction. I’ve got a soft spot for scientists who write fiction–Wallace holds a PhD in geophysics–and a love of plants, so I was predisposed to like this fantastic tale. The story is clever, with plants such as Quercus mortem and Rosa chiromancia referred to only by their botanical names. Wallace never explicitly reveals the origins of the protagonist Rosalie or her caretakers Miss Morning, Miss Day, and Miss Night, or what happens when Rosalie finds her way out of the garden, pushed in her wheelchair by Miss Day.
Wallace’s story reminded me of a Victorian cabinet of curiosities, holding things rare and strange. This similarity is emphasized by the evocative imagery used: “Glass boxes filled the shelves, as in the library, but the specimens they held were all wrong: flowers with misshapen petals in too many colors, vines that writhed and pushed against the walls of their cases, beetles made of shiny metal crawling over crumbling chunks of logs.” Subtle hints about Rosalie’s origins make the entire story into a museum cabinet in which the reader must search for clues, an enjoyable task.
If you could start over with your life partner, would knowledge of your future together lead you to do things differently, try for a better life? James Patrick Kelly examines that question in “Happy Ending 2.0.” The protagonist thinks that this time he’ll do it right, but are we ever capable of getting our relationships with others right? What would that be like? Kelly’s story raises the questions, but leaves the answers for the reader to ponder.
Spending time in an alien setting requires adaptation, whether that foreign milieu is a different terrestrial culture or elsewhere in the universe, as in “Bodyguard” by Karl Bunker. Like the Finch novella, language is used as a way to describe and understand an alien culture. Bunker presents an emotionally complex resolution to the protagonist’s search for a way to escape both his past and his future. The interplay between human and alien cultures makes this conclusion possible, and the adroit use of linguistic differences and subtle physical cues demonstrates the commonalities and divergences of perception between the two species.
In “The Ifs of Time,” by James Stoddard, the manor of Evenmere simultaneously encompasses and regulates the universe. What happens if time threatens to stop within its walls? Enoch, the keeper of the clocks, both observes and participates in the tales of the storytellers tucked away in the highest tower. He unravels the riddle hidden in their stories of time, death, and obsession, and nudges the storytellers and the entire universe back into its proper place. The concept and setting work quite well for this exploration of the major human theme of death and immortality. The framing tale of Enoch and his clocks and the internal stories told in the tower are equally-well realized.
“Night Gauntlet” was team-written by Walter C. DeBill, Jr., Richard Gavin, Robert M. Price, W. H. Pugmire, Jeffrey Thomas, and Don Webb. Set at the University of Texas in Austin, this academic horror story traces what happens when research goes wrong. The story of physics professor Susan Derby, a string theory expert, is seen from the perspective of the literature grad student John Giloh, who is dating her. Dr. Derby has taken over the office of kooky Dr. Hesychius, who went insane and shot 19 students and staff from the clocktower, claiming they were nightgaunts. Dr. Derby chooses to leave his office as it was, including the complex arrangement of Lovecraftian postcards connected by colored yarn.
You can see where this goes, right? It all ends badly, but this team of authors entertains the reader even as they propel the story to the inevitable conclusion. The story was (very) loosely inspired by noted theoretical physicist John Wheeler, who spent the last decade of his career at UT Austin. Some may feel that the story veers too close to actual Austin history, since it also borrows from the events of 1966, when Charles Whitman shot and killed 16 people from the campus clocktower.
Dixon Wragg’s short story “Ping” originally appeared in the Washington Post. I love flash fiction, the effort to distill a story down to its minimalist essence. This piece conjures up character and setting in only 21 words.
The poem “Metaversal,” by Sophie M. White presents a series of humorous and provocative images of what alternate versions of our universe might be like.
This issue of F&SF features almost exclusively male protagonists, the girl from Kali Wallace’s story being the only exception, but does include two stories with non-European settings. Language as a manifestation of the alien, whether an unfamiliar terrestrial culture or a species from the other side of the universe, links several stories, “The Evening and the Morning,” “Bodyguard,” and even “The Paper Menagerie.”