Speculative Fiction Reviews
An Occasional Review Journal

You've probably noticed there are no new reviews here. I simply haven't time for reviewing and writing recently, and reviewing has had to go. For now, this journal is closed. Apologies.

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F&SF, January 2005

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 2005

I read this issue some time ago but haven't had time to post a review until now. Apologies.

The Lorelei, by Alex Irvine

January's F&SF opens rather magnificently with Alex Irvine's The Lorelei. The story takes place in turn of the (19th) century New York. A young man, Charles Pelletier, comes to the city, determined to become an artist. There he meets the obsessive, deranged genius that is Albert Pinkham Ryder and becomes a disciple of the great man.

Ryder's great obsession, in Irvine's story at least, is painting the Lorelei, a Germanic representation of the muse taken from Heinrich Heine's 1823 poem, Die Lorelei, and as Ryder's paintings develop, he feels the Lorelei is drawing closer.

"I feel sometimes as if I've been noticed, as if a slow eternal gaze fallen upon me with a world of magic and danger,"

Ryder tells Pelletier. Then, one day, Ryder believe he has found his Lorelei in the form of a young woman who lives in the same apartment block. When his friends convince Ryder to go abroad with him, though, he loses his muse and his decline begins. Pelletier's guilt at his role in this decline and his sadness form the emotional canvas on which Ryder's more vivid shades are painted.

The story is beautifully told, the voice genuine and believable. Irvine also touches the narration with humour, such as in Pelletier's first meeting with Ryder:

We entered my room and he went directly to the canvas I'd left to dry that afternoon. For a long time he stood looking, and I exerted my energy not to interrupt him.

At last he turned away and looked at me. "Keep at it," he said, and walked past me to the door.

Ryder, of course, is an historical figure, and there are always dangers in fictionalising accounts of well-known historical figures, but Irvine managed to convince this, admittedly non-expert reader, with his representation of the artist.

The story does stumble towards the end, much like the crumbling of Ryder's genius, as it takes too long to reach its conclusion, but it never quite falls. Despite this, this is a masterfully written, enchanting tale. Those of us who merely paint pictures can only look on in awe at the artist who created this piece.

Keyboard Practice, consisting of an Aria with diverse Variations for the Harpsichord with two manuals, by John G. McDaid

John G. McDaid's Keyboard Practice... is a simple story obscured by a complex structure. It is set, for the most part in 2023 at a piano competition in which the ghost of a previous winner perhaps puts in an appearance. Like Irvine's piece, this is a tale of a damaged genius.

The conceit of this story is that it is structured in a parallel manner to Bach's "Goldberg Variations" (the original title of which McDaid uses as the title of the story). Like those variations, this story takes a basic theme and spins off into divertions and variations on the original theme. While this may be a wonderful structure for a musical piece, it works less well for a story. In the first half, the plot is barely touched upon and the variations become tiresome fairly quickly. This is coupled with an affected writing style that is at times nearly impenetrable. As a result, much of the earlier part of the story was wearing. If I hadn't read this story with the intention of reviewing it, I wouldn't have finished it.

Which would have been a pity, because in the second half, and increasingly towards the end, the plot takes off, the story becomes more focused, and I finally became involved.

This is a story where the inspiration and conceit end up working against the story rather than for it. Thirty two variations was too many. The story would have benefitted from a closely-wielded knife hacking off the flab, yet in attempting to closely parallel all 32 variations, the author seems to have been unable to carry out the operation.

A further problem, which might not have bothered me so much if I hadn't been distracted by the style, relates to the technology. This story is set only 19 years in the future, yet the technology is too far removed from today's. It's not that the technology itself is unlikely, more that the penetration of the technology into the society is too great. For example, the narrator is supposedly one of the few remaining people who can type. Some of the story is set only nine years in the future, but again the technology there is nearly unrecognisable. Arguably, the author would have been better served by pushing the events back by a couple of decades.

In the end, this is a story where the style obstructed the substance rather then elevating it. Keyboard practice... was not entirely a failure, particularly towards the end where it peaks briefly towards the glorious, but I could not help but find this more of a chore than a pleasure.

Born Bad, by Arthur Porges

Born Bad by Arthur Porges is a short-short in an issue of novelets. Perhaps that was not the right place for it. Short-shorts are wont to seem slight in any context, but sandwiched here, this story seems even less, while not lasting long enough to provide a break between the novelets. I'm not a fan of the short-short form--I have read a few great pieces, but a very few--and Born Bad has done little to change my mind. While, thankfully, this doesn't end with a pun, it does end with an exclamation mark (point), which has nearly the same effect. It shouts, "look at me," when there is nothing of substance to look at.

The writing was fine, but I saw little point to the story.

The Blemmye's Stratagem, by Bruce Sterling

The Blemmye's Stratagem by Bruce Sterling offered the most difficulties for me as a reviewer. In part this may have been because I subscribe to F&SF through Fictionwise, and Fictionwise appear to have decided not to include any section breaks in this story. In part, this resulted in The Blemmye's Stratagem feeling curiously unstructured. I'm still not sure, even after rereading, how much of this came about from the formatting cock-up and how much from the story itself.

The story is set during the crusades. The Abbess Hildegart and Sinan, leader of a group of assassins, are both employed by their Silent Master, a deformed man known as the Blemmye. Together they work to produce wealth for their master, and to bring him sacrifices. For the Blemmye has married a demon, and it needs feeding.

Sterling has meticulously researched his era and its myths, and he builds on them with his always-unconventional imagination, particularly in respect to the horrific weapons the Blemmye has constructed. The Blemmye--in this story a native of Preston John's kingdom, but whose name is taken from a Nubian tribe who seem to have disappeared well before the time period we are in--appears to have been directly inspired by the strange, twisted humans who populate the extremes of some medieval Mappae Mundi. The world that Sterling envisages, then, is both fictional and a representation of the contemperous myths of the period of the crusades.

The characters are rather sketchily drawn for such a long piece. Sinan is a little bit of an Orientalist stereotype--hot-blooded, violent and raucous beneath a civilised veneer. Hildegart, despite the backstory given to us, remains essentially unmoved, emotionally, and oddly unmotivated throughout.

The story, too, lacks. Sterling has a habit of telling events, as though they were incidents seen from a distance, rather than dramatising them. As such, this piece almost reads like a novel proposal rather than a story.

There is much to be interested in here: the sketched bookends story; the inventive setting; the fascinating historical and mythological details. But in the end, Sterling's storytelling is the weak link, and this story did not satisfy as a story.

Last Man Standing, by Esther M. Friesner

By contrast, there is little to fault in Esther Friesner's Last Man Standing, the final story of this issue. Namtar is a slave of the Sumerian king Gilgamesh. Upon Gilgamesh's death, Namtar is included as one of the thirty-two slaves to be sacrificed to serve their master in death. Namtar's luck, when he manages to get himself exchanged for an arrogant young soldier for the sacrifices, lasts only until he drunkenly tells the goddess Inanna that he would have given up his life for one of the other slaves, and she decides to take him up on the offer.

Some of the other stories in January's issue were distinctly heavy going. Friesner has a light, easy touch that keeps this story ticking over at a fine pace. Namtar is a likeable, involving character who has been dealt a bad hand but who deserves both his problems and his redemption. The research is well done--as with all of the historical stories in this issue--and the setting described with spare, clear detail.

I was occassionally pulled from the story by Friesner's use of anachronistic humour, such as, for example, Namtar's reference to

"the Gilgamesh Early Retirement Plan for Slaves, Concubines, and Show Folk".

Nonetheless, this is more a question of preferred style than a genuine weakness in the story, and I can't imagine any fantasy reader not liking Last Man Standing. This won't ever be considered a great story, but it is thoroughly enjoyable and a lot of fun to read.


January's issue of F&SF contained four novelets and one short-short. Four of the stories were fantasy, one--arguably--both fantasy and science fiction (the McDaid piece).

For my taste, the issue was skewed too greatly towards the longer pieces, and the single very short piece was poor.

The stand-out story was Alex Irvine's The Lorelei. Esther M. Friesner's Last Man Standing was also excellent.

Overall, this issue seemed slightly weaker than some recent issues.

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