The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 2007

Dangnabbit, GvG has put the Ted Chiang story last of all. Can I resist a peek whilst I make my way through the other stories?

Alexander Jablokov. Wrong Number.

A more contemporary tale than you normally get from Jablokov, who can do hard SF of the highest drawer. Here there is an urban contemporary setting, mostly staged in an auto-repair shop, the owner of which is capable of fixing more than just bumps. It’s a condensed, intense story, with a half dozen well drawn characters. The protagonist is a woman who regrets, some years later, giving a man trying to hit on her a slightly different version of her phone number.

Worried by this event, during lonely nights watching tv and eating ice cream in bed, her friends helps her out by introducing her to the car mechanic. They are all fractured, lonely characters, searching for each other, and nice touches include the two old guys working in the repair shop, spending time playing chess and Avalon Hill board games. These characters, one white and one black but both through age moving towards an intedeterminate grey, are subtle, and wouldn’t have appeared in the story if it had been written by a less accomplished writer.

It’s one of those stories which are ‘sly’ – a quick read through if you’re in the wrong mood, or the mind is slightly elsewhere, and it could come across as a ‘meh’, but the subtle nature of the story makes it more.

Albert E. Cowdrey. Envoy Extraordinary.

Cowdrey evidently used to head up the Conventional War Studies Branch at the US Army Center of Military History, and that fact, alongside a dark take on intergalactic diplomacy in the far future, suggests that whilst being SF&F’s gain has been of late somewhat to the loss of US foreign policy!

A reluctant envoy is posted to a godawful backwater planet, to shore up the regime of a fairly unpleasant dictator, whom the powers that be decree needs to be kept sweet. A shiny medal, and a truckload of cash, are the coin in which the dictator is to be paid. However, the diplomat is just a pawn in a much bigger game, and as any player of chess is aware, pawns are there to be sacrificed to achieve the end game….

Heather Lindsley. Atalanta Loses at the Interpantheonic Triva Bee.

A very wry take on godhood, and love as it would be in this age of celebrity and media obsession. Although bearing in mind it is ancients at play, presumably it should have been a Trivia Beta?

John Langan. Episode Seven : Last Stand Against The Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers.

Langan has provided a couple of more than good stories with a horror bent in F&SF – ‘On Skua Island’ Aug 01, and ‘Mr Gaunt’ Sept 2002, and ‘Tutorial’ in August 2003 (excuse me, 2003?? : if asked, I’d have guessed 2006. Where are the freaking years going?)

Here he provides a post-apocalyptic near future with a couple fleeing a marauding pack of .. creatures .. which have appeared as part of said apocalypse.

It’s an intense, breathless narrative, getting into the minds of both the protagonists as they flee for their lives, looking over back and more distant events, with barely a break for punctuation. It’s a stream of consciousness rollercoaster, which works well – good to see an author trying something that bit different, stylewise.

Kevin N. Haw. Requirements for the Methodological Method Badge.

Short humorous piece which indeed lists a number of requirements for students in an age in which myth has returned to the planet.

Robert Reed. If We Can Save Just One Child…

Not an entirely convincing piece from Reed. He takes the current paranoia over child safety, and the increasing use of technology to monitor and predict ‘suspect’ activity to the nth degree, as one father comes under the attention of the forces of law and order. And then comes face to face with one somewhat pscycho man who has put 2 and 2 together and come up with 5. The story doesn’t quite gel, and has a somewhat limp ending, resulting in an overall feeling of a story that could perhaps have had more work put into it.

Ted Chiang. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.

From one extrement to another : from Reed, one of the most (probably the) most prolific short SF writers, to one who publishes only rarely, albeit to invariably excellent effect. And Chiang comes up with the goods again.

This story score on several fronts. He’s taken time travel and used it to such good effect it’s likely to put others off writing on this topic for a while. What he does, which other’s don’t, or can’t, or won’t, is to weave it into a story that is just so subtle and clever.

Set in Iraq in bygone days (when Baghdad was ‘City of Peace’), it is a tale as if from 1001 Arabian Nights. The traveller is entertaining the mightly Caliph with a tale, but it is a tale within a tale. He relates his experience upon finding an Alchemist who has a portal which enables travel back in time. There are constraints on the travel, for there must be a matching portal at the destination. The Merchant is a man whose heart has long been full of sorrow and remorse, having lost his young wife many years in the past.

Can he go back and change events? He understands from the Alchemist that whilst travel to the past is possible, whilst it can be observed, and interacted with, the past cannot be changed. However, in his journeys to the past, the Merchant finds out more about his wife’s death, and finds that whilst he cannot change the past, he himself can be changed by seeing the past, to good effect.

Chiang creates a believable setting, and addresses human emotions and motivations, and produces a story of the highest standard.

Conclusion.

A mighty fine issue.

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