Speculative Fiction Reviews
An Occasional Review Journal

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F&SF, September 2004

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 2004

Rain from Another Country, by Mark W. Tiedemann

September's issue of F&SF begins with of its stronger pieces, Rain from Another Country by Mark W. Tiedemann. Tiedemann had one of the most impressive stories in the last issue of Black Gate (issue 6, Fall 2003, “Miller’s Wife”) and he has pulled off another success here.

Ann Myref is dead, but she's died with unfinished business. Seven years previously, her then partner, Willem Karkaris, left Earth for Tau Ceti to follow his dream of owning a vineyard. Ann refused to go with him. Now that she is dead, her memories and personality, recorded shortly before her death, have been overlaid on a host hired by Ann, and she has gone to find Willem.

This is a quiet, touching story that examines the cost of failure to communicate with and understand the person you love. It is tinged with a deftly-handled sadness and subtle emotions. Tiedemann is particularly good in his description of the alien landscape.

This is a story that simply could not be told in any other genre. The dichotomy between the host as Ann and as herself, and Willem's reactions to this dual person, form the heart of this strong story. It is a fine example of what science fiction can do.

Designing with Souls, by Robert Reed

We're back with the dead again with Robert Reed's Designing with Souls. This is a clever little take on home makeover shows, with the twist being that, in these shows, they are installing 'ghosts' into homes. Behind this speculative premise is the idea that people can leave remnants of their personalities imprinted on a ‘substrate’. With the appropriate technology, these remnants can be amplified to produce ghosts. Madame Zane is the original and the best of the ghost installers. She is also a bully and a ruthless egotist, but she meets her match with the ghost of a grandmother.

This story is a lot of fun, but it's fairly lightweight stuff. Beyond the nifty idea and Reed's fine writing, the story is a little thin, and the end was not totally convincing. There are certainly some neat touches (such as the interaction between the ghost of the little boy installed in the bathroom and the seven-year-old son of the family) and a welcome dose of light humour, but the story is not likely to linger long in the memory.

Sergeant Chip, by Bradley Denton

Brad Denton's novella, Sergeant Chip, is the highlight of this issue. Denton has had an impressive career so far, if one that hasn't received the public recognition it deserves. Perhaps this is because Denton is not a man who writes the same thing twice. In fact, it might be fair to say that he scarcely writes in the same genre twice. Thus we have had such diverse offerings as his serial-killer novel, Blackburn, his poignant, funny contemporary fantasy, Lunatics, and his wonderful short-story collection, One Day Closer to Death. What unites all of these is Denton's wonderful characterisation and the quality of his writing. A new Brad Denton story is always a treat.

In Denton's latest story, he tackles military sf. The story is a simple one. Sometime in the near-future, in an unspecified country, a war is going on. Captain Dial, his dog, Chip, and D Company are sent in pursuit of fleeing rebels. The company are ambushed, and Chip is left in charge of a group of refugees. What makes this story different from most other military sf is the humanity of its telling. Perhaps, bearing in mind that it is told entirely from the point of view of the dog, that is an odd thing to say, but it is true nonetheless. In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could easily have descended into sentimentality. Instead, Denton uses the dog's loyalty and straightforward naivety to illuminate the horrors of war with a clarity that it could not have had were it not seen through such innocent eyes.

Denton clearly knows dogs. The relationship between the intelligent Chip and Captain Dial is both believable and touching, and will be recognisable to anyone who has ever had a dog. The very believability of this core relationship adds to the emotional kick of the story, and casts a critical light on the use of animals in war.

Sergeant Chip is another confident, powerful piece from Brad Denton, and I, for one, cannot wait to see what he offers us next.

Falberoth’s Ruin, by Matthew Hughes

Set in a distant future, the penultimate age of the Earth, Matthew Hughes's Falberoth's Ruin, is another fairly lightweight piece, but again one that will provide a lot of entertainment for the reader, and which may turn out to be one of the most popular from this month's issue.

Henghis Hapthorn is the foremost discriminator of his time, a man who is never wrong. He is a man in the mold of Sherlock Holmes or one of Agatha Christie's detectives, and like them, his arrogance is tempered and redeemed by his intellectual curiosity. When he is approached by Torquil Falberoth, an unpleasant and extremely rich man, to find out who has threatened to kill Falberoth, Hapthorn provides his answers. Shortly afterwards, Falberoth is murdered, and Hapthorn is forced to find out who the murderer is.

Although this is to a large extent a detective mystery, including the traditional gathering of suspects into a room to hear the detective’s conclusions, we are never treated to the reasoning behind the conclusion that Hapthorn reaches, and in that way it does not deliver as a detective piece. It delivers a little better as a character piece with a satisfying, if minor, change in the character of Hapthorn, and as a science fictional setting. Although Hughes does tie in the second element of the story--the puzzle set for Hapthorn by a being from another universe, I felt he could have drawn these elements more tightly together. In the end, I think this well-written, enjoyable tale will need to be judged in the context of Hughes's evolving universe, when he has had a chance to more fully develop some of the fascinating ideas he touches upon here rather than simply as a stand-alone tale.

Peter Skilling, by Alex Irvine

Alex Irvine's Peter Skilling is a fine piece of social speculation. Peter Skilling dies on a mountain in 2005, under the influence of marijuana. 98 years later he is brought back to life, only to find himself on trial for terrorist offences. Irvine's story ruthlessly extrapolates from the USA PATRIOT Act and Bush's hypothetical re-election to show a frighteningly dystopian future. In this future, the liberties that we now take for granted have been removed in the name of defending those same liberties in the never-ending fight against terror. Irvine's great triumph in this story is to make us realise that, far from being an unlikely future, this vision is only a step away. It is both a warning and a stand against taking that route. Peter Skilling is unashamedly partisan in its outlook and it will no doubt offend some, but this is within the finest tradition of social science fiction. I, for one, would like to see more of it.

Gasoline, by J. Annie MacLeod

In J Annie MacLeod's Gasoline, a teenager in small town Nebraska turns into a wolf with the help of a neighborhood witch. F&SF, like other magazines, has sometimes published mainstream stories with genre sensibilities; this is the opposite: a nominally genre story with mainstream sensibilities. There is no reason why such a story should not work, however in this case it doesn't.

In such a story, we might expect to see vivid, well-formed characters, but we don't. The main protagonist hardly emerges as a character. Instead, we are deluged in mundane details that quickly overwhelm the story. The problem with these details is not that any individually are poor, just that there are so many of them and that they are not story-relevant. The sentence structure too becomes monotonous.

This is not to say that everything about Gasoline is bad. It isn't. J Annie MacLeod is obviously a talented writer. It's just that this story could have done with far more focus on the relevant and a greater self-discipline.

I Am the City, by Richard Mueller

We return to the lightweight for the last of this month's stories. Richard Mueller's I Am the City is topically set, in Iraq of a year or so's time. Dave McNary is a journalist in Los Angeles covering weird, unimportant stories and dreaming of a serious assignment overseas. When he meets an ancient Babylonian god, he receives his wish.

If anything, I Am the City is even more lightweight than the Reed story and probably will stay in the memory for even less time. It suffers perhaps from not totally being sure what it wants to be. Certainly it is an enjoyable story and well enough written (although the style doesn't remain completely consistent throughout), but in the company of both other more inventive light stories (Building with Souls and Falberoth's Ruin) and more impressive weighty stories (Captain Chip and Peter Skilling) it seemed insubstantial. There are never any particular obstacles for the protagonist to overcome, and he seems more of a walk-on part to allow the pyrotechnics to be shown than a real character.


September's issue of F&SF contained one outstanding novella, Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton, and two excellent short stories, Rain from Another Country by Mark W. Tiedemann and Peter Skilling by Alex Irvine, as well as a couple of entertaining lighter pieces, Building with Souls by Robert Reed and Falberoth's Ruin by Matthew Hughes. Overall, it was a strong issue that faded a little towards the end. There were more lightweight stories than more serious ones, and more science fiction than fantasy (although, arguably, Designing with Souls is both).

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